Social Injustice and the Environment

The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule. 

Pope Francis EVANGELII GAUDIUM

An article in my local newspaper concerning community protests about the construction of a temporary asphalt plant in Orange Grove in the Perth foothills caught my attention.  The local residents in this rural area are concerned about the possible pollution coming from the location of the plant near their homes.  There is a long established quarry in the area already which causes some concerns but the new plant the protestors feel would add to health and environmental risks for the residents.  There is the potential for toxic chemicals from the plant as well as adding more heavy transport to local roads.  The asphalt plant is to provide for major infrastructure works being undertaken in the south-eastern region of Perth needs to be sited somewhere suitable and, I presume, that the company felt that using the quarry location is a good location.

While it is hopefully safe to assume that government environmental regulatory measures would protect us from potential pollution, is this a case of ‘not in my backyard’?  As long as the pollutants are hidden from view or sent somewhere else it’s not a problem we need to be concerned about? 

tvsMost of us would are accustomed to seeing CRT television sets and computer screens left on roadsides for local council waste collection.  The popularity of flat panels and the switch to digital transmission has resulted in millions of the older televisions becoming obsolete and being thrown away.  But what happens to those old TV’s?  According to an ABS article on electronic and electrical waste;

  • Australians are among the highest users of technology, and e-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste.
  • 17 million televisions and 37 million computers have been sent to landfill up to 2008.
  • Of the 15.7 million computers that reached their ‘end of life’ in Australia in 2007-08, only 1.5 million were recycled – that’s less the 10%.
  • The cumulative volume of televisions and computers reaching the end of their useful life is expected to reach 181,000 tonnes or 44 million units by 2027-28.
  • Australians buy more than 4 million computers and 3 million televisions annually
  • Older televisions that contain Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT) have more than 2 kilograms of lead and account for the largest source of lead in the waste stream. Flat screen televisions contain less lead but more mercury.
  • If 75% of the 1.5 million televisions discarded annually were recycled there would be savings of 23,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalents, 520 mega litres of water, 400,000 gigajoules of energy and 160,000 cubic metres of landfill space.

There are a number of schemes under the National Waste policy including the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme which are working to encourage the recycling of hazardous e-waste.  However what happens to the products of the recycling process?  According to an ABS report on Australia’s international trade in waste in 2011-12 Australia exported 4.4 million tonnes of waste valued at $2,407 million.  The 28,000 tonnes of hazardous waste exported by Australia was largely in the form of lead waste and scrap (90%) and chemical residual products (5%). Our main trading partners for this type of waste were Korea, Philippines and Germany.  Hazardous lead waste alone exported to Korea was valued at $17 million.

boatAustralia is signatory to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal which was designed to protect the poorest countries in the world.  The convention puts an onus on exporting countries to ensure that hazardous wastes are managed in an environmentally sound manner in the country of import.  According to the Basel Action Network the convention aims to prevent “the toxic effluent of the affluent floods towards the world’s poorest countries where labor is cheap, and occupational and environmental protections are inadequate.  A free trade in hazardous wastes leaves the poorer peoples of the world with an untenable choice between poverty and poison – a choice that nobody should have to make.” 

Australia, amongst other developed counties, has failed to ratify a later amendment to the convention which would have totally banned the trade in hazardous waste between developed and developing countries.  Here we rely upon a National Hazardous Waste act which requires ministerial approval before export of hazardous waste only for the purpose of recovery.  The government has banned exports of hazardous waste for final disposal in landfill or incineration.  However the potential consequences of failure to strictly control the movement of hazardous waste for recovery was evident in an incident in 2006 where the illegal dumping of toxic waste from a cargo ship from Europe in Cote D’Ivoire led to more than 10 deaths and over 100,000 people seeking medical assistance.  While is this case the pollutants were identified primarily as acutely toxic organochlorines, it is conceivable that hazardous waste like heavy metals from Australia could have been part of that consignment through third party organisation elsewhere in the world.

According to Professor James Boyce when we find problems of environmental degradation, we find problems where some people are benefiting at the expense of other people.  “Pollution, resource depletion, doesn’t affect everybody equally.  It tends to be low-income people around the world who get hit the hardest”.  If we want to address environmental problems, we also have to think about how to improve the ability of those who have the most to gain from addressing these problems to make their voices heard and to make their health and well-being and their children’s well-being a central issue in the protection of the environment.  From an ethical standpoint every human being on the face of the earth, present and future generations, all have an equal right to a clean and safe environment.

In 1974 Pope Paul VI reminded us that; 

Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace – pollution and refuse, new illness and absolute destructive capacity – but the human framework is no longer under man’s control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family. The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all

Nigel Hayward

Updated: January 23, 2014 — 9:14 am
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