09 avril, 2022

Challenge of the waste crisis: the ultimate proof that neoliberalism is bad for the planet

 During the Holocene, humans started the conquest of the Earth. The agricultural and industrial revolutions and the industrial boom at the end of the Second World War[1] were significant events that pushed humanity into the Anthropocene, stimulated by the spread of imperialism and colonization followed by the actual neoliberal neocolonial order.

Technology was supposed to bring social progress. Yet, industrialization and the rise of consumerism generated inequality and pollution of all kinds.

Nowadays, there are calls from experts and activists for a collective action at every level of society in order to achieve planetary health through the implementation of the One Health concept[2]. Researchers defined the planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to survive. Respecting these boundaries implies deep changes in global governance and limiting growth to minimize negative externalities.[3]

Implementing the planetary boundaries concept[3] implies a boundaryless planet which appears to be very challenging in the actual scattered human population lead by neoliberalism and neocolonialism.

In this article, I expose how the neoliberal system is the culprit in the actual environmental crisis; how pollution is profoundly neocolonialist since the actual management of the crisis makes the most vulnerable bare the load of the rich and I explain why the market shouldn’t have a say in the governance of environmental issues.

The challenge of growth and pollution:

The obligation of growth as a mean of development opened the door to the extensive materials economy[4] which different steps have negative outputs and contribute directly to the anthropogenic pressures on the Earth System causing the imminent transgression of the planetary boundaries[3,5] and the implementation of inequality along the way.

First, extensive natural resources exploitation by the Minority World make a small amount of people use an impressive amount of resources locally and then purloin resources from the Majority World while destroying biomes. Then, the production processes generate a large number of toxic products and chemicals, for which western governments implemented strict policies, making corporations opt for overseas implementation of production units leading to the contamination of populations in 3rd world countries. The distribution mechanism uses exploitative approaches to reduce cost. Finally, Consumption is massively promoted leading to startling aggregates of waste.

Global waste crisis:

Since the 2nd era of globalization, The aim of the neoliberal order was to promote a global free market via ‘structural adjustment’ reforms recommended by institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank[6], giving more space to the material economy to offer cheap products with planned obsolescence to clients immersed in media manipulation that distorts their vision of the world, pushing them to consume more and throw more waste.

The last step of the materials economy is disposal, it’s the more obvious part of the process nowadays. Massive production and consumption lead to colossal amounts of waste which management is challenging in a linear system of production.

Minority world is creating the biggest percentage of waste: the USA for example, are producing alone, 30% of the world waste. [4]

These different kinds of pollution are responsible for 16% of all deaths worldwide in 2015. Pollution seems to be more proficient than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined; it kills 15 times more than wars. [5]

In high income countries, where stricter environmental legislation raises the costs for disposal[7] and where recycling is insufficient and cannot be the answer to all kinds of waste, governments and corporations adopted a waste distancing[8] policy:  it is more financially appealing and much easier to operate in the unregulated markets of the global South.

The Global North ends up exporting waste to the Global South in an attempt to hide its industrial inefficiency, to create a physical and mental distance between consumers and their waste in order to keep the consumerism mechanism operational by lowering awareness and avoiding accountability. [8]

Waste distancing policy implies a waste-sink demand that deepen economic inequalities either on a local or global scale: some communities have no choice but to accept the waste of the rich.

The governance of the waste distancing

At the international scale, the neocolonial dynamic normalizes taking advantage of corruption and the lack of environmental policies in low-income countries. These affected populations have a limited social–ecological resilience and have to endure the social impacts of transgressing planetary boundaries[3] without having the competencies to ensure environmental stewardship of hazardous wastes.

The export of waste to developing countries started being a blooming business in the early 1990s.[8] The Basel Convention signed in 1992, sought to control this trade and was followed by regional conventions aiming to control this expanding business sector.

Until 2018, China was the main actor in the waste business field, importing 45% of the world’s plastic waste. In 2018, China started applying restrictions resulting in a waste accumulation in producing countries and the re-routing of hazardous waste toward other markets.[9]

This market on tension resulted in the increase of illegal treatment of hazardous waste in both producing and waste receiving countries coupled with an increase in waste crime reported by Interpole.[9]

At the international level, “Treaties are crucial”[2]because they give civil society organizations the power to make nations accountable. Since the 1990s many cases of illegal waste distancing have been reported and some exporting countries had to take back their hazardous waste.

The Italian Tunisian waste battle[10]:

One of the most recent waste distancing conflicts took place in 2018: an agreement took place between 2 private compagnies in Italy and in Tunisia aiming to export 120 000 tons of Italian toxic waste yearly for a total sum of 5 million euros[11]. The first shipment arrived to the Tunisian coast in July 2020 and was composed of 282 containers filled with 7,900 tons of waste.

At the Tunisian end, the private company was an inactive company created in 2011 that amazingly started working in 2018. It asserted to local authorities that the shipment was made of post-consumer plastic to be recycled. The management of the file didn’t apply the national rules and the specifications were reported to be modified without the approval of the referent national institution: The National Agency for the Protection of the Environment: ANPE.[10]

The Italian company was known to be in the middle of judicial investigations conducted by Salerno's Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate and seem to have a link with organized crime.[10]

The true nature of the waste wasn’t known but some sources declare it not to be recyclable[12], the Tunisian government declared not being aware of the agreement. Clearly, the entry of the shipment was directly linked to corruption[13] since the former Minister of the Environment, the Tunisian consul in Naples and around 25 other persons have been arrested and charged while the owner of the Tunisian company fled the country.

This case mobilized many environmental NGOs[13] that called for the Italian government to repatriate these containers since the transaction was a clear transgression of the Basel convention, the Bamako convention and the Izmir Protocol of the Barcelona Convention.

The fight was hard, it was even described as a “David versus Goliath battle” in the media[10]: civil society members had to keep on pressuring the Tunisian government for 2 years in order to adapt a firm response.

High level discussions took place between stakeholders from the two countries in order to reach an agreement. Finally, the return of only 213 containers among a total of 282, was validated.

Tunisia's domestic waste is reported to be either incinerated producing toxic dioxin or managed in landfills. CSO’s report[13] reveal that Tunisian domestic solid waste management is a very lucrative sector where opacity and corruption are not only endemic but also institutionalized. Like other developing countries, Tunisia does not have the technology, or working standards to deal with domestic waste properly, not to mention exported one.


Waste is currently the tip of the iceberg, but other types of pollution are just as dangerous. The impacts on human health are disastrous, and we are only just beginning to discover them.

The impact of pollution is suffered by the most vulnerable populations who are more exposed due to their socio-economic situations within countries and by the poorest countries on a global scale. Pollution obeys to the same mechanisms of structural violence and should be qualified as so.

Waste crisis has spurred corruption and crime and generated more inequality and treaties failed to provide an international governance system that would make such practices unappealing. 

This crisis was the result of neoliberal consumerist policies and its management should not be entrusted to the laws of the market.

The externalization of waste from industrialized countries is an avoidance that does not allow them to think about sustainable solutions: the extraction of natural resources in third world countries, the relocation of polluting production units and the outsourcing of waste are only operations to camouflage the problem: rich countries are putting the dirt under the rug.

The implementation of planetary health and the adaptation to the anthropogenic pressures on earth implies the rethinking of actual unequal trading system. We also need to reflect on the role and meaning of borders because they have been shown to be extremely porous when it comes to pollution.


[1] Strasser, S., 1999. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Metropolitan Books, pp.13-14.

[2] Schuftan, C., Legge, D., Sanders, D. and Nadimpally, S., 2014. A manifesto for planetary health. The Lancet, 383(9927), pp.1459-1460. 

[3]  Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F., Lambin, E., Lenton, T., et al., 2009. Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society, 14(2).

[4] Youtube.com. 2007. The story of stuff. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GorqroigqM&t=1276s> [Accessed 6 April 2022].

[5]   Landrigan, P., Fuller, R., Acosta, N., Adeyi, O., Arnold, R. and Basu, N. et al., 2018. he Lancet Commission on pollution and health. The Lancet, 391(10119), pp.462-512.

[6] McMichael, P., 2000. For an overview of the globalization project and its impact on developing countries. Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective.

[7] Müller, S., 2019. Hidden Externalities: The Globalization of Hazardous Waste. Business History Review, 93(1), pp.51-74.

[8] Clapp, J., 2002. Distancing of Waste: Overconsumption in a Global Economy in Confronting Consumption. MIT Press. 

[9]  2020. INTERPOL STRATEGIC ANALYSIS REPORT: Emerging criminal trends in the global plastic waste market since January 2018. INTERPOL.

[10] France 24. 2022. Tunisian NGOs triumph in David-vs-Goliath toxic waste battle with Italy. [online] Available at: <https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20220221-tunisian-ngos-triumph-in-david-vs-goliath-toxic-waste-battle-with-italy> [Accessed 6 April 2022].

[11] Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. 2022. L'environnementalisme post-décentralisation | Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung | Tunisia - Tunis. [online] Available at: <https://tn.boell.org/fr/2021/04/29/lenvironnementalisme-post-decentralisation#_edn6> [Accessed 6 April 2022].

[12] GAIA. 2022. Italy and the EU must take back waste dumped in Tunisia Now. [online] Available at: <https://www.no-burn.org/italy-must-take-back-waste-dumped-in-tunisia/> [Accessed 6 April 2022].

[13] 2022. Déchets italiens : derrière le scandale environnemental, une vaste affaire de corruption. [online] Available at: <https://inkyfada.com/fr/2021/02/11/enquete-dechet-corruption-italie-tunisie/> [Accessed 6 April 2022].

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