We are part of the problem: An excursion journey to waste management facilities

Often, we don’t think about our daily consumption and how much waste we generate nor where or how it will go. As long it’s “NIMBY” meaning Not In My Back Yard. As long as it’s out of our sight, we don’t think it’s a problem or at least not our problem. Unless there’s no waste collectors, then it’ll be a problem. According to the Global Waste Management Conference (2017), we produce approximately 2.12 billion tons of waste each year globally. Have you ever thought of what people do with this waste and where it will go to? What about your waste at your home country?

Based on our recent visits to four waste collection, sorting and recycling facilities in Dresden, it was eye-opening and brought up a realization of the ugly truth. I could tell you that it’s not always a pleasant story of how your waste might go or where it might end up? If you’re lucky, your government takes good care of these issues for you by creating effective approaches and efficient waste management systems. One thing that stood out and we find amazing is the fact that by law, no waste that enters a landfill is not treated. This regulation gives so much benefits to the environment, social well-being and economy, saved the cost from reducing the emission of C02 to the atmosphere and other environmental and social impacts that would result from unsustainable waste management practices.

After the field trip, we have realized the ugly truth. The truth that shall spread out to each individual in the world, especially policymakers and households in developing countries. The realization of how much waste we generate, how much resources and energy is needed and/or used to produce these products, energy, and resources to sort and treat those products when it becomes waste. Waste management operations here in Germany are so advanced and well managed compared to most developing countries. Some facilities may run down a little bit and may not be at their perfect performance and may need to do some renovations, but they do manage to run the system smoothly. I was day-dreaming to see how good it would be to bring these facilities and systems, including all the technologies and equipment to my country. Personally, I feel very guilty of seeing our daily use products laying in the waste collection facilities and its life cycle. Not to mention the danger of chemicals and hazardous waste.

Biologic-mechanic waste treatment plant

Generally, Germany has strong regulations, law enforcement and implementations regarding waste management systems (waste collection, sorting, treatment, and recycling system). This may be related to the fact that Germany is part of the European Union, therefore, additional rules are needed to oblige to meet the EU standard. I noticed that most cities in Germany, the municipalities managing their own waste rather than depending on private companies. Moreover, there is active public participation from the local government, local people, the church, and other institutions. Despite having strict regulations on waste management, Germany has the available advanced technologies, financial resources, strong commitments, and human resources to make all this possible.

In contrast, everything seems to fail and far from success in the way we manage our waste in developing countries, although there are well-structured regulations and guidelines regarding waste management. It’s hard to pin exactly where or what went wrong. Many people may argue that waste management systems in developing countries failed mainly because of corruption, poverty, weak governance, education, lack of political will, lack of financial support, lack of human resources, or lack of access to advanced technologies. But personally, I think we are lacking of local people initiatives, participation and rightfulness perspective on waste. Waste to us is trash, we don’t see the value of waste nor the benefits of well managed and well treated waste.

An example from recent news in Cambodia that could illustrate how one person (lack of long-term thinking) could dangerously impact public health and the surrounding environment. On 31st January 2019 in Sihanoukville province, Cambodia, the Minister of commerce made a big scene of burning 25 tons of imported white garlic from China that contained high chemical substances (Disulfoton) which is used for insecticide in agriculture. The burning of these illegal toxic products took place at an open-air landfill in Sihanoukville surrounded by many people watching and taking pictures. We are talking about a Ministerial position that is undertaking this action, someone that holds big power, someone that actually could make a change. The purpose of this act of burning those imported chemicals white garlic is to protect public health, but I guess they didn’t think about the impact of burning these products with a normal temperate in an open-air at a dump site. Imagine how much chemical gas was generated and polluted from this unstandardized burning in an open space? What is the social and environmental impact on the nearby community?

To conclude, we (human) have over exploited our natural resources so much by trying to provide products, services, and technologies to meet our lifestyle and demands. We have come closer to the point where any move we make could lead to a point where there’s no return. Our style of living and choices of consumption are the problems. We need to rethink and reassess our taste of styles, our daily choices before we purchase by considering not only the price tag but where they came from, what value did it add to your life, how will it go after a certain period of time. Shall we blame the growing population, the need to meet our basic daily requirement, societies that desire for better lifestyles, innovations that make lives easier? You may not know the exact answer of all these questions, but it’s a good start to become responsible consumers or learn to adapt products life cycle thinking in taking part for our environmental solutions through practicing environmentally friendly behaviors such as support and use of organic products, reuse, recycling, living the minimal lifestyle and think of the products life cycle before purchasing it.

We also would like to show our gratitude and sincere thanks to Dr. rer. nat. Dietmar Lohman and the CIPSEM team for their hard work to make these field trip studies possible and to make sure we maximize our learning opportunity and time here in Dresden. Thank you.

by Ms. Sreymoch Bun (Cambodia) & Ms. Haili Zhou (China)

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