NAJIB SAAB 2/10/2015

Landfills don’t solve the garbage problem, as much as producing more food doesn’t solve the hunger problem. Although part of the solution, both approaches are examples of partial measures bearing the seeds of bigger problems.

A myth promoted by some environmental amateurs claims that “waste is wealth.” The fact re-mains that waste is essentially garbage. Such theories attaching garbage to wealth serve to en-courage producing more garbage and making the problem worse. It’s true that some garbage components can be useful through recycling and reuse, but prior to that production of waste at the source must be decreased through serious measures, not public relations initiatives. De-creasing the use of plastic bags in supermarkets needs the imposition of a price and a tax on their use, which prompt shoppers to bring their bags with them to avoid paying the price. Re-ducing plastic and glass bottles in garbage needs the enforcement of a pricing and substitution mechanism, whereby buyers are reimbursed the price of empty bottles when they return them to supermarkets to be reused. It’s a known fact that discarded water and soft drink bottles and plastic bags are the biggest part of Arab garbage.

A price should be imposed for dumping discarded furniture and home appliances, depending on weight and type, to encourage reusing by consumers. Remaining garbage is treated with an integral set of measures, including composting, incineration and landfilling, according to every specific situation.

The “garbage is wealth” theory is only true when pollution is free and reuse and recycling are selective processes applied to easy and expensive waste, such as metals, while the rest, includ-ing poisonous and hazardous materials are discarded in haphazard dumps or landfills. Since qualified integrated treatment is costly, the solution starts with decreasing the size of garbage at the source, reuse and recycling and restricting treatment to what’s left – be it incineration, composting, landfilling or the three together. Although many Arab countries started applying integrated programs for waste management, it’s a pity that amateurs, although calling them-selves experts, still manage this serious matter in some countries, leading from on calamity to another.

Restricting the management of the waste problem by just building more landfills and incinera-tors, is equal to reducing the hunger and food security problem by increasing food production. True that climate change led to less food production in many parts of the world, but the hunger problem isn’t in the first place the result of climate change but a consequence of failures by some countries and societies to deal with these impacts. Hunger is as much man-made as cli-mate change, and solution requires systemic measures not limited to increased production by any means.

Hiding behind climate factors and natural disasters as pretexts for covering up dereliction in other matters isn’t new. When famine hit British colonies in the 19th century, claimed reasons were restricted to drought and bad weather, while the main reason was bad management sys-tems making some regions more sensitive and more prone to natural factors.

History repeats itself today; we talk about climate change as a consequence of human activities and as a cause of less food production, but we forget that hunger is also man-made and a result of bad management and unfair access and distribution. Therefore producing more food, with-out providing just distribution and observing people’s right to food, won’t feed the hungry.

Believing that more food is needed to face climate change leads to calling for new production methods, mainly genetically modified foods (GMFs), which can withstand draught and pests. Here is the crux of the problem: large corporate players monopolize GMF seeds, making access to them restricted to those who can afford their prices. This won’t solve the hunger problem; it will allow monopolizing corporations, hunting for opportunities in food and garbage, make more profits.

In both cases, the solution starts with modifying consumption patterns. In terms of garbage, it is a perquisite to decrease quantities at the source by reducing waste and using recyclable prod-ucts. And before using GMFs, monopolized by some corporations at high cost, it is more feasible to improve production efficiency and apply fair distribution, coupled with changing consump-tion patterns by switching to alternative foods which need less water to be produced.

Sustainable consumption will be the subject of a comprehensive report by AFED in November. This will incorporate a public opinion survey on consumption patterns, carried out in 22 Arab countries. The report will show that sound environmental management starts with addressing the causes, not with circumstantial fixing of the consequences.