Lives Wasted: Garbage as a Forgotten Dimension of the European “Refugee Crisis”

by Maximilian Feichtner and Theresa Leisgang

A deflated rubber boat is washed up on the eastern coast of Chios. Once the waves have buried it under rocks and it becomes even more entangled with seagrass, you will hardly be able to see it. But for tourists strolling along the beach, this isn’t the only reminder of the boat landings by refugees who crossed Europe’s borders at night. All across the beaches of the Aegean Islands, where tourists usually swim and sunbathe, refugees leave their life jackets, water bottles, soaked clothes—and the boats on which they started their journey to a new life. The waste is what connects both, tourists and refugees, in their everyday life, as both are caught up in a circle of producing and managing waste. Beyond that, the waste is a material trace of countless people’s struggles to survive and escape violent conflicts. It is a trace that tourists and islanders would like to ignore; a trace, however, that won’t disappear by itself.

About one million people arrived on Greek shores in 2015 and the first few months of 2016, most of them fleeing war and persecution in Syria. Since March 2016, when the EU signed a deal with Turkey to halt the flow of migration to Europe, arrivals via the Aegean Sea dropped dramatically. However, possibly due to rising tensions regarding EU-Turkey relations, numbers are increasing again: 4,609 people reached Greece via boat in September 2017 according to the UNHCR. With them, the amount of discarded rubber dinghies, sports boats, and other waste on the islands will likely amount to tonnes. Their waste comes in addition to the already existing refugee boats, carelessly piled up in the hinterland, turning pastures into ship graveyards. What remains undiscussed in the broader public and political debates is the potential environmental crisis that risks adding another level of complexity to the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe. Continue reading “Lives Wasted: Garbage as a Forgotten Dimension of the European “Refugee Crisis””

Mumbai Deluge 2017: Nowadays Rain Gods Have a New Tool—Plastic Bags!

by Ayushi Dhawan

We often do not think twice before buying a plastic bag at a supermarket or a shopping mall. It’s bought because it’s needed and discarded after being used for a short while. How harmful can these everyday practices be to our environment? Mumbai’s recent floods definitely have a story to tell in this regard, where these harmless-looking plastic bags acted as a major pollutant and literally suffocated both the drains and the residents of the city.

Mumbai, the sprawling financial metropolis and capital city of Maharashtra, with a population of over 18.3 million people, came to a grinding halt on 29 August 2017 when torrential rains struck the city. Transportation systems came to a standstill as the suburban train services were temporarily suspended. Along with that, many flights were either canceled or delayed because the runway remained non-operational, marooning countless people. Subsequently, the power supply was cut off in various parts of the city to prevent electrocution. This deluge was instantly compared, by media channels and local residents, to the 2005 floods when the state of Maharashtra was struck by high tides which in turn triggered devastating storms and floods killing 1,094 people in the city of Mumbai. But these comparisons in a way were misleading, since statistically speaking the metropolis received just 12 inches of rain during the flooding this year, whereas, in the 2005 floods, 37 inches of rainfall was recorded, thus over three times more than the current scenario.

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Flooding in Mumbai, August 2017. Photo by News Measurements Network Live, via Wikimedia Commons. Available under a CCO 1.0 creative commons license.

Continue reading “Mumbai Deluge 2017: Nowadays Rain Gods Have a New Tool—Plastic Bags!”

Asia and the Pacific: Environments—Cultures—Histories

Workshop Report (LMU-ChAN Satellite Conference, 3–5 November 2017, Rachel Carson Center, Munich, Germany)

by Travis Klingberg

(All sketches by Libby Robin)

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Group picture of the workshop participants.

Flood-proof cities. The social costs of waste incineration. Water level changes in the Pearl River Delta. The environmental impact of nineteenth-century Chinese immigration across the Pacific. These are a sample of the topics discussed during the “Asia and the Pacific” workshop, hosted by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in early November.

The workshop was was organized by the Rachel Carson Center in collaboration with the LMU China Academic Network (LMU-ChAN) and it received funding from the German Academic Exchange Service. Continue reading “Asia and the Pacific: Environments—Cultures—Histories”

Toxic Floods: Let’s Talk about the Weather

By Simone M. Müller

We’ve probably all been thinking about the weather lately. Our officemates are sneezing, others are coughing, the first one is turning in a sick note. It’s the time of year when weather-related topics start dominating our everyday conversation: the change of the season, the turning of the leaves from deep green to ruby-red, tangerine, or a sun-soaked yellow. Fall is reigning. And let’s not forget, fall is also hurricane season in the Northern Hemisphere. As the difference in temperatures between the North Pole and, let’s say, the South of Italy grows, storms and even hurricanes become an everyday weather phenomenon across Europe and the Atlantic. With the storms, we usually get it all: wind, flood, and destruction—and if we’re not immediately affected by these events ourselves, they are neatly brought to us via our daily news feeds in easily digestible news snippets and images from the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, or Northern Germany.

Yet when, in recent weeks, those of us lucky enough to be watching from our cozy armchair at home, from our office, or while squeezed up close to our fellow commuters on the metro saw images of, for instance, Americans wading waist-deep in mud-brown water, few of us realized, perhaps, that some of these people trying to save their life and livelihood had also been in there waste-deep.

There is more to these floods than meets the unsuspecting eye. These mud-brown waters are not solely the result of an everyday weather phenomenon in the fall in the Northern hemisphere gone a little out of control. Beneath the surface, these waters harbor a story of unresolved toxicity and waste management. Let’s take a closer look. Continue reading “Toxic Floods: Let’s Talk about the Weather”

Introducing “Trash Talks,” a New Series on Our Everyday Encounters with Hazardous Waste

Hazardous waste surrounds us. We may not realize it, but toxic, hazardous, and harmful waste objects are part of our everyday encounters. They form part of our daily routines of consumption, mobility, work, leisure, and travel. We could stumble across a hazardous waste story when watching the news or going shopping. Often these stories are hidden from sight, and more often than not, we also choose not to see or care about hazardous waste: the outdated batteries in our trash, our old cell phone in the drawer, let alone the consequences of all those plastic items that we accumulate.

The four blog posts in Trash Talks: Hazardous Waste and the Everyday comprise the first instalment in an ongoing series from the research group Hazardous Travels: Ghost Acres and the Global Waste Economy. In this instalment, we tackle our everyday encounters with hazardous waste material. Each post explores a different aspect of how hazardous waste is present in our everyday items and activities, ranging from the weather or calling the plumber, to going on vacation or taking a stroll along the beach. Hazardous waste is our everyday companion, whether we like it—or see it—or not.

Continue reading “Introducing “Trash Talks,” a New Series on Our Everyday Encounters with Hazardous Waste”

Ecopolis München: Ecopolis Night

“A Student Exhibition on Munich’s Environmental Histories”

All photographs courtesy of Florin Prună.

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In late July, students of the RCC’s Environmental Studies Certificate Program organized Ecopolis München: Umweltgeschichten einer Stadt. This interactive multimedia exhibition showcased Munich’s environmental histories through the students’ final projects, and was curated by doctoral candidate Sasha Gora, research assistant Raphaela Holzer, and the Deutsches Museum’s exhibitions curator Nina Möllers.

Over 200 people attended the special evening, among them prominent guests including professors from various universities, city representatives, journalists, Selbach Umwelt Stiftung founder Karl Heinrich Selbach, and Green party leader Margarete Bause.

The evening opened with an informal welcome from RCC director Christof Mauch and a number of students involved in the organization of the exhibition. President of LMU Munich Bernd Huber then gave the official opening address, remarking on the fantastic work the students had done. Continue reading “Ecopolis München: Ecopolis Night”

Worldview: One Piece at a Time

Guest post by Judith Selby and Richard Lang

Judith Selby and Richard Lang are artists who collaborate in an ongoing project to collect plastic along Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. They also recount their adventures in Plastic Forever, the blog they jointly manage. This is a  follow-up post to last week’s Snaphot on Seeing the Woods. All photographs are courtesy of the authors.

For related content about the journey and transformation of waste, take a look at our RCC Perspectives volumes: Out of Sight, Out of Mind and A Future without Waste?


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Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang with “Trophy Fish.”

Our story is one of human inventiveness and metamorphosis. It is about how the simple act of picking up trash landed us on national TV, with money in our pockets to continue the work we love, to begin a marriage, and to lose ourselves in a compelling vocation. All of this forged in the crucible of trying to make a visual blight into something good to look at. So, yes, it is about art making. But we wish to point out that in this era of everything standing in for everything else, a world made meaningless by the glut of meanings, something of consequence happened. Bending over, picking up, bending over, picking up one piece at a time. Several tons of plastic collected—one piece at a time.

In 1999, information about a mysterious patch of garbage in the middle of the North Pacific was just beginning to roll in. Charles Moore, a boat captain returning from the Transpacific Yacht Race, came across a befuddling density of plastic. He engaged the help of oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, and their research showed some alarming results. On the planktonic level, plastic particles numbered six-times the number of living creatures. Plastic does not “biodegrade”—as it floats in the ocean, it is simply broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, wearing down to the molecular level. Plastic enters the food chain with some ugly results. Albatross chicks have died by the thousands with their gullets filled with plastic. Chemicals leach out of debris, creating a disruption in the sensitive endocrine systems of birds, fish, and mammals. Dangerous levels of toxins are showing up in humans. Continue reading “Worldview: One Piece at a Time”