Waste not, want not

Recycling has become standard in the West, yet we often overlook where our waste ends up. Much lands in Africa, where artists are among those addressing the problem. Here, Leonie Annor-Owiredu speaks to Burkina Faso-based artist Hamed Ouattara about how he hopes his art will lead to wider change

Rubbish is inevitable. It’s the one problem among all climate change and sustainability issues where human involvement cannot be ignored. Zero waste sustainability memes show that it’s a key concern, but how much thought goes beyond the waste that leaves our front door? Our need to find a singular enemy to blame in the climate crisis furthers the idea of separating us from the impact of our own behaviour. We’re doing our ‘bit’, so the issue of waste and waste disposal then becomes someone else’s problem.

In 2016, the UK produced 222.9 million tonnes of waste and exported around two-thirds of the UK’s plastic waste. The UK is one of many Western countries that have relied heavily on China to process their waste. Until 2018, that is, when China refused to accept the world’s waste, forcing nations to find somewhere else to deal with it, or tackle it themselves.

What the citizens of the UK believe they send for recycling is actually dumped in our country

“Bales of trash piled up in California, in the UK, in Australia and elsewhere, as exporting nations scoured the world for new buyers,” wrote Laura Parker in National Geographic. In pursuit of a new place to process its waste, the UK opted to export to Malaysia, offloading 105,000 tonnes of it there in 2017-18 alone. While other developing nations rose to the occasion, they quickly became overwhelmed with the poor quality of the recycling waste they received, deeming the contents to be illegal.

“What the citizens of the UK believe they send for recycling is actually dumped in our country,” said Yeo Bee Yin, environmental minister of Malaysia, as it began returning unwanted waste to their countries of origin. When Malaysia followed on from China’s ban, it dispersed the onus for managing the West’s waste onto other nations; most of the world’s dumpsites are also in areas that are most vulnerable to climate change – Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

Top: With his latest project, Green Design, Hamed Ouattara aims to make artworks without the use of electricity; Above: The artist sat on one of his works