Waste Frontiers

World-systems theory views the globe like a complex living organism, in which there is a constant flow of various elements between the core of developed nations and the periphery of less developed ones. While the world-system is largely open, allowing for the free flow of any and all elements throughout the entire system, some flows are highly directed. For example, wealth tends to accumulate in the core, while anti-wealth gets distributed throughout the periphery.

Some elements of anti-wealth, such as carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming, sea level rise, and desertification, impact the entire globe. Other elements, like discarded plastics, tend to accumulate in remote areas of the world’s oceans (e.g., Great Pacific Garbage Patch), and are easily dismissed as non-problems (out of sight, out of mind). Still other elements, such as outdated electronic equipment (particularly computers and smartphones) and ships, are transported over great distances to be taken apart in seemingly remote locations, so that their constituent parts can be used again to fuel the global economy.

While the numbers vary, depending on current global economic conditions (shipping demand and steel prices), there are about 1,000 ships scrapped every year. Only about 10% of these (mainly naval vessels) are dismantled in industrialized nations, due to strict environmental and occupational health and safety regulations, as well as the high cost of labor. Of the remaining 90%, the vast majority (60–70%) are scrapped at Alang, in India, a smaller number (~15%) at Chittagong, in Bangladesh, and the remainder at various sites in China, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, and Vietnam.

Alang is located in the prosperous Indian province of Gujarat, which boasts well-developed manufacturing and agricultural sectors, as well as possessing the highest grade transportation and energy infrastructure in India. And yet, as this recent short documentary film demonstrates, core and periphery have become fused, at least geographically, as concerns about human life and the environment are subjected to a grotesque reconceptualization. The working conditions are much the same in Chittagong, as this film shows. Bangladesh is far less developed than India, especially with respect to heavy industry, and it gets 80% of the steel it uses for construction purposes from ship breaking.

There are more than 3,500 special export processing zones, in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, where limited regulatory restrictions allow for the haphazard disposal of toxic materials. Our first instinct might be to view this offshoring of the developed world’s garbage to these waste frontiers, as a crime against both humanity and the planet. It is just as easy, however, to reframe the situation as countries in the developing world deliberately onshoring this same waste to bolster their economic position. Waste recycling activities can be viewed as a means of augmenting existing economic drivers in a way that compensates unskilled, or displaced (e.g., fishermen) members of the labor pool, thus quelling labor unrest and raising the financial wellbeing, if not the health and safety, of large disadvantaged populations.

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Originally published at managementprofessor.wordpress.com on March 12, 2016.

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