Re: [GRRN] Local responsibility principle

Ian Reeve (
Tue, 26 Jan 1999 07:30:19 +1100

Bill Sheehan wrote:

>Maybe things are different in North America than in Australia, but this
>characterization of waste politics does not make sense to me. The perception
>of waste as a health hazard liability led to localization of waste management
>through local government control a century ago. The recognition that waste is
>a profitable liability has led to massive centralization of wasting and
>attempted marginalization of resource conservation in the past decade.
>I'd like to think that "the pendulum" is swinging in a new direction as the
>connection between unsustainable resource extraction and wasting is becoming
>more evident: from waste as liability to waste as resource. This can lead to
>centralization (as in industry take-back systems) or to localization (as in
>discard malls -- or recycling estates as they are called in Canberra).
>NIMBY is a response to waste facilities, whether centralized or localized,
>large or small, in one's neighborhood. NIMBYism is usually justified and is
>one of the primary levers moving the pendulum towards 'waste as resources.'

Bill, the centralisation - local responsibility axis I was referring to is
really only applicable to the site of decision-making about waste disposal,
and particularly long term planning, which I would call waste management
politics. Of course, many in the sanitary engineering - waste engineering
profession might prefer that these decisions were made on rational
scientific principles without the intrusion of messy politics, but one has
only to examine the deliberations of the legislatures at local, State and
Federal level to see that waste disposal decisions are political decisions.

The concentration of market power in the waste collection, transport and
disposal industries, or the concentration of industry recycling
responsibility in the Duales System Deutschland, or the addiction of modern
industrial economies to resource wasting, also involve centralisation of a
sort. But the processes involved are different to what it is that makes
politicians decide it might be a good idea to put responsibility for waste
disposal in the hands of a single government authority, or take that
responsibility away from such an authority and disperse it among a number
of local authorities, or to hand it all over to the private sector.

almost never based on a 'rational' assessment of options, but rather are
the outcome of the interplay between ideas about waste that go back to the
Dark Ages, selective scientific assessments, experts' favoured solutions,
simplistic notions of governance (like carrots and sticks) and, probably
most importantly, political expedience and self-interest.

Of course, nimbyism looms large in politicians' assessments of whether
voters are going to keep them in power or not. As you rightly say, much
nimbyism is justified, but nimbyism is just one side of a coin, the other
side being the acceptance of collective responsbility for the disposal of
waste. Social animals that we are, and given the practicalities of
achieving political consensus, collective responsibility is easier to
obtain amongst a small group of people who feel some sense of community
than among three million inhabitants of a large city. To a certain extent,
this is what drives the pendulum I referred to. On the one hand
centralisation of government responsibility for waste has the appeal of
economies of scale, rationalist long term planning, coordination of effort
and uniform standards. But on the other, if centralisation also means
establishing new centralised landfills, then its political appeal
evaporates. Local responsibility becomes an attractive principle.

Much of this would change and the pendulum would take a new direction if
waste was viewed as a resource, as you rightly point out. But as a fan of
Mary Douglas's "Purity and Danger", I prefer to think that people will
always find something to identify as "waste", something ambiguous in its
properties, something yucky, something that won't stay where it is put but
returns to threaten you. I think there is a reasonable amount of evidence
to suggest that the plastic bag and the emissions from burning it has
become the miasma of the late 20th century and the industrial wastes in
landfills (the media's toxic time bombs) are like the 'filth and
corruption' that was the focus of late 19th century sanitary zeal. From
Douglas's ethnographic point of view, little has changed in the individual
understandings of waste that structure collective behaviour. So, yes,
waste is and should be seen as a resource, but I suspect it will be a long
time before people see a landfill in their backyard as no more of a
nuisance than a quarry.


Ian Reeve