February 17, 2014

Review of ETIAtalks “Waste(d) Efforts: Affording Urban Waste Management in Developing Nations”

On Thursday, 23rd January, the Festsaal of the Diplomatic Academy was filled to the last of its seats for the kickoff event of ETIAtalks. An initiative of students of ETIA (Environmental Technology and International Affairs), a postgraduate Master program jointly offered by the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and the Vienna University of Technology, ETIAtalks is an annual panel series that explores and discusses issues of current relevance in the fields of energy, environment and related technologies and how these are intricately related to politics, law and international affairs. In its inaugural event, the discussion revolved around potential, challenges and constraints of waste management in developing countries.

In an active exchange with the audience, Paul Brunner, professor of waste management at the TU Vienna and his colleagues Christoph Scharff (ARA), Heinz Leuenberger (UNIDO) and Peter Benedet (Samsung Electronics Austria), discussed a variety of issues from food loss to electronic waste, from organized crime to the (im)possibilities of international investment, and from consumer responsibility to producer insensitivity under the header of urban waste management in developing nations.

The problem of affording waste management in the developing world is closely linked to a global unwillingness to invest money in this sector. Regardless of the economic development of a country, only an average 0.3 percent of GDP is spent on waste management. However, as Brunner pointed out, “our most expensive resource nowadays is knowledge” and thus the costliest part of a more efficient waste management is the technological infrastructure, meaning that the comparative advantage of lower salaries has only little influence on what a state can afford in this sector. Further, the developing states’ lack of investment in the waste management sector has induced a growing informal sector of the size of several US$ billion per year. This implies that collection and disposal is carried out in bad working conditions by people who have little to no training in dismantling the resources or differentiating between reusable second-hand material and hazardous waste. Of the different sections in the informal sector, scavengers above all are exposed to major health hazards when picking waste and also later during extraction of precious metals. In terms of health hazards, the increase of electronic waste has become of major concern. Recycling of electronic devices has a high economic benefit when done by trained people in controlled working conditions, but under the actual conditions, the health hazards are lethal. Additionally, developing countries do not only deal with their own e-waste but also with the imports from developed countries. Leuenberger explained that this fraction is still expensive despite regulations such as the Basel Convention prohibiting these exports. Increased investment in education programs for customs officers in differentiating between useful material and hazardous waste was proposed as a solution, but no mention of who would provide the funding nor who will be doing the refurbishment of the second-hand material and under which conditions.

The problem seems to be the lack of obvious economic benefit and incentive for international actors. “If there is something of value, you pick it up”, explained Scharff pointing to the throwaway mentality of our society and the considerable decrease in value given to the resources. With little capitalistic rationale to be seen directly from the material, an improvement of the company image would seem to be the only motivation to take action. Benedet explained that, unfortunately, companies act within a customer-oriented market structure, which so far has exerted no pressure on them to get involved in waste prevention or recycling in developing nations. According to him, “a single company can’t be the solution” if the consumer doesn’t ask for change. However, shifting the responsibility back and forth between consumer and producer won’t help protect human life and the environment nor will it prevent the spread and development of diseases as efficient waste management would.
The conclusion to be drawn from the evening was that the key for the future of waste management in developing countries lies in increasing knowledge about economically viable solutions. However, it also became clear that the general attitude toward resources needs to change and in light of this, the first ETIAtalks has made a step in the right direction. The bar is set high for the two upcoming talks taking place in the coming months.

On 20th March during the international week of water, a panel of experts will address the sustainability of hydropower plants and whether it is indeed the greenest of renewable energies. On 24th of April, the closing talk of the season will take place with an evaluation of smart grids, modern electrical grids gathering information to improve the efficiency and reliability of electricity distribution.

Please register at: etiatalks(at)gmail.com

Get an impression of the last talk at: http://etiatalks.com/gallery/

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