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15 July 2023updated 25 Jan 2024 2:51pm

A world built on trash

Oliver Franklin-Wallis’s Wasteland shows how our rubbish creates an environmental and human catastrophe.

By Philippa Nuttall

“Actual fact: you could make an entire second world out of what people throw away,” says Demon Copperhead, the titular narrator of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel. The protagonist, a victim of the US opioid crisis, is dismissed as “rubbish” by his classmates, a “shit eater loser trash jerkoff”. Copperhead may be a work of Kingsolver’s imagination (heavily inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield), but as Oliver Franklin-Wallis’s Wasteland makes clear, in reality it is those on the margins of society the world over who are left to deal with the mountains of trash humanity adds to in every second of every day.

Wasteland was conceived when, in the spring of 2019, Franklin-Wallis visited Green Recycling, a “materials recovery facility”, to report on a story for the Guardian about a crisis in the waste industry. “But as torn-up boxes and crushed furniture and packets in every conceivable form roll past by the tonne, I realise that I’ve got the story wrong,” he writes. “Waste is the crisis.”

“Dirty”, “Foul” and “Toxic” are the headings for the three parts of Wasteland, which is inhabited by smells (“an acid tang that floods the nostrils and grabs at the throat”), visual assaults (torrents of brown and beige, noxious black and yellow sludge) and death (animal, vegetable and mineral). It is also home to some terrifying statistics: the four trillion plastic cigarette filters flicked to the ground and stamped out annually; the 20,000 plastic bottles sold every second; the 2kg of waste produced every day by the average American. “Human beings have always produced waste,” writes Franklin-Wallis, “but never before at such scale” and rarely with such devastating consequences for so many people.

Copperhead’s job involves sorting through nappy-strewn rubbish and the potentially lethal task of draining the acid out of old car batteries. The real-life version is no better. “In the US, garbage workers are almost three times as likely to be killed on the job than police officers,” writes Franklin-Wallis.

He likes to get his hands dirty, going to see where waste comes from, who is in charge of sorting it, and its environmental, social and economic impacts. At Sellafield, an ageing nuclear facility in north-west England; Ghazipur landfill, a 65-metre-high mountain of 14 million tonnes of garbage outside the Indian capital, Delhi; and Kantamanto, the largest second-hand clothes market in Ghana, Franklin-Wallis observes and questions. What he learns is often eye-opening, both in terms of the sheer extent of the waste we produce – from plastics, clothing, food and electrical equipment – and the pollution it causes to the land and the air as it breaks down, belching out methane and other pollutants.

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Buying and selling second-hand clothes on Vinted and similar websites has become a way for Westerners to appease their conscience about their clothing waste and related carbon footprint. Yet Franklin-Wallis learns that by recirculating the highest-quality and highest-value goods in the UK and other rich countries, the “value that we would have exported to – and which traders in places like Kantamanto have relied on to survive – falls”. While we congratulate ourselves on saving the planet, traders in Africa are left to eke out a living from poor-quality fast fashion.

[See also: The UK’s rubbish dump mafia]

“Does that mean we shouldn’t resell our stuff and try to extend the life of things wherever possible? “Honestly, I’m not sure,” writes Franklin-Wallis. His willingness to accept that “the answer is complex, the ethics unclear” is refreshing. We would do well to heed his call to “recognise that our decisions about waste can have unseen consequences for people and places thousands of miles away” and to stop treating our waste, and the people who deal with it, as a dirty secret “to be hidden away”.

Perhaps in an effort to bring waste workers out of the shadows, Franklin-Wallis introduces everyone he meets by describing their hairstyle and clothing. Anwar, a waste picker in Delhi, is “a neat man in a red hoodie and suit trousers, with kind eyes and a sweep of dark hair”. At Ellington sanitary landfill in Northumberland, waste manager “Victoria – ‘Vic’ – wears a peroxide-blonde bob and a leopard-print blouse under her high-vis jacket”, while Sue, a gleaner (people who take a second harvest from a crop) in Kent is all “straw-blonde hair, lemon-yellow blouse”. It’s a nice idea, but after a while it felt contrived and increasingly irritating. 

This niggle aside, the book is well written and few readers are likely to be left unaffected by its findings. After months of investigating, the enormity of the waste issue, “begins to take a spiritual toll” on Franklin-Wallis (as he notes in the acknowledgements, he suffers from a chronic pain condition which affected the writing of the book). In an effort to be part of the solution, or at least not part of the problem, the writer and his young family make some lifestyle changes: plastic is out; bamboo toothbrushes, shampoo bars (not bottles) and refillable coffee cups are in. Franklin-Wallis becomes an expert in recycling and composting. He even learns to sew.

Such “busy-ness” is better than doing nothing, but to significantly reduce waste and its human and environmental costs would require systemic change, concludes Franklin-Wallis. Companies, he argues, should be forced to reveal the waste footprint of their goods; problem materials should be “designed out” to make all products recyclable, biodegradable or both; greenwashing – when a firm makes false boasts about its sustainability – should be illegal; and “a fully and equitably funded waste system” created to make businesses pay to remove their waste wherever it ends up, “whether that be in the Thames or a Ghanaian gutter”. And we all need to purchase and consume much less stuff, says Franklin-Wallis.

How the modern economy came to be “built on trash”, as Franklin-Wallis writes, is perhaps best shown in The Years, the 2008 book by the French writer Annie Ernaux, the winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature. Beginning just after the Second World War, the novel charts the changes in society during the next 60 or so years. The narrator describes the frugal postwar era where, “Nothing was thrown away. The contents of the night buckets were used for garden fertiliser, the dung from passing horses collected for potted plants. Newspaper was used for wrapping vegetables, drying the insides of wet shoes, wiping bottoms.” Many years later came supermarkets, plastic, and the throwaway society of plenitude. “The increasingly rapid arrival of new things drove the past away,” writes Ernaux. “People did not question their usefulness, they just wanted to possess them.”

We are perhaps starting slowly to come full circle, with the growth of the sharing economy and the realisation that we don’t need individual ownership of everything. “Things are already moving,” believes Franklin-Wallis, for whom change means moving forwards with new technologies such as food-sharing apps, not backwards: “I’m not advocating that everyone return to the lifestyle of a 1920s housewife, with pots of bone broth constantly on the boil.”

Wasteland: The Dirty Truth About What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, and Why It Matters
Oliver Franklin-Wallis
Simon & Schuster, 400pp, £20

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops. Philippa Nuttall writes on the environment and climate and is based in Brussels.

[See also: The Green awakening]

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world