A Reflection by Dr. Theresia Bilola
My research into the sustainable development goals has highlighted something intriguing. Some of the goals are the most challenging for industrialized countries to reach. More specifically industrialized countries struggle to ensure that their consumption and production patterns are sustainable. What is the root cause of this ‘struggle’ and who bears the brunt? I like to simplify complex policies and jargon, so permit me. I had to come and live in Europe to clearly see that many of the things inherent in my so-called ‘low-income, poor lifestyle’ were actually sustainable even when they were not by choice. For many like me the following were associated with being well-to-do:
- Being able to afford a new outfit for every occasion;
- Having every version of the latest electronic gadget;
- Not having to go to the farm to harvest food;
- Cooking more with meat than vegetables;
- Not having water as the only drink accompanying a meal;
- Having the liberty to throw food away without a second thought;
- Driving your own car rather than cycling, walking or using public transport;
- Not having our clothes tailor-made by local seamstresses/tailors but buying them ready-made and imported;
- Not wearing second hand or hand-me-downs;
- Not wearing a pair of school shoes until it is beyond repair;
- Not having to repair almost everything.
The list can continue but I think this makes my point. I did not have to think about responsible consumption. I was living it and so were many around me but we were schooled to believe that this list is what a ‘rich’ person’s life should include. More than 80% of what I saw on television was not content from my context or background. These ideals were built and poverty was defined from somewhere else.
My current country of residence is a ‘developed country’ with a population of just over 5 million. However, around 2 million new mobile are phones bought each year. Mobile phones are the most popular gifts. I am forced to ask where do the old phones go? How much of the components of a mobile phone are actually recycled and where? Are we attempting to tackle overconsumption without considering the root causes?
When China banned 24 types of solid waste in September 2017, countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan realized they had a huge problem. Until 2017, China accepted 70% of the world’s electronic waste—discarded computers, cell phones, printers, televisions, microwaves, smoke alarms, and other electronic equipment and parts. When China stopped accepting this e-waste due to concern for its environment, Europe and North America began shipping more of it to Southeast Asia. In addition to China, Vietnam and Thailand, whose ports have been overused, are limiting imported e-waste as well. It is estimated that the world will produce more than 57 million tons of e-waste in 2021 (The Global E-waste Monitor 2020, p. 23-24).
Wealthy countries send approximately 23 percent of their e-waste to developing countries each year. This is despite the fact that the European Union and 188 states are signatories to the Basel Convention to minimize the transfer of hazardous waste from developed countries to developing countries. The United States, the only developed country that is a signatory to Convention but has not yet agreed to be bound by it, has agreements that allow it to ship hazardous waste to developing countries.
Our focus must shift from the symptoms to the root of the problem. For example, the growing problems with e-waste cannot be solved by continuously finding where to keep the fallouts from consumption. The solution lies in the production process itself, revisiting pre planned obsolescence and returning to production for long-term use. The solution lies with the waste-receiving countries redefining their terms and policies on what they receive or not. The solution lies in ensuring that waste is managed in the country where it is produced. When each country caters for the disposal and management of the waste created within its borders, irresponsible production and consumption will be reduced. Within the waste-receiving countries, the media should focus on changing the mindset on what it means to live ‘rich’ or ‘poor’. There is a difference between the inability to afford basic necessities and constantly striving to live to meet one’s wants.
In sum, the solutions lie in our individual and collective responsibilities framed in very simple terms rather than overly complicated processes. We are all environmental managers. So, let us consider the environment before we make the next purchase. Do you need it, or you just want it? Where will the old one end up?
Dr. Theresia Bilola is a socio-political change-maker researching sustainability policies and challenging different definitions and aspects of sustainability. She holds a Doctoral degree in Social Sciences. Her doctoral research was about strategy formulation and implementation. She earned her Master’s degree in the European Commission’s Erasmus Mundus Master’s programme in higher education policy and management. Theresia has experience in implementing international sustainability policies and she has worked with different organizations promoting sustainable development. She is currently a first-time candidate running for the municipal elections 2021 in Turku, Finland.