The Past of Future Risks: Toxic Legacy and Waste Recycling
Soraya Boudia, University Paris Descartes
La Rochelle is a charming coastal town in the southwest of France, turned towards the Atlantic Ocean, rather far from the Bordeaux vineyards, which recently have become the theatre of several demonstrations against the massive use of pesticides. Its commitment to sustainable development policies has given the town a “green” image, a place where it is good to live in. However, moving of the tourist marina located in the city center to the commercial and industrial port area, the image of La Rochelle as experimental model of “sustainable city” in the future becomes clouded. There, in the town’s industrial west and working class neighborhoods, are concentrated its so-called Seveso sites, high risk facilities according to EU regulation: storage tanks for nitrate fertilizers and hydrocarbons as well as chemical company Rhodia’s “historic” factory, which has been taken over by the multinational corporation Solvay a few years ago. Environment activists supporting local communities protest against the high risk of explosion and oil pollution. At first glance, it seems to be the usual story: a classical situation of entangled environmental and social inequalities, local communities defending themselves against global corporations. Yet this case is illustrative on another level. Indeed, it showcases, in an exemplary manner, different forms of entanglement: first, between old pollution problems and new solutions addressing them, secondly, between a toxic industrial legacy and the promise of a sustainable future.
In October 2011, the giant company Solvay announced with great fanfare the opening of two recycling facilities for rare earths. One of which was on the La Rochelle site. Used in computers, mobile phones, electric vehicles, wind turbines, etc., rare earths elements are essential for strategic industry branches. With China being the world’s leading producer since the 1990s, supply in 17 different rare earths has become a critical political issue. Several western states feared the ever-raising prices and supplies interruption, particularly since the Chinese government has announced that it will limit its production and exportation. The United States and Australia announced the reopening of their old mines of rare earth minerals, while others, such as Solvay announced their commitment to a green economy with the development of recycling facilities. Solvay has issued many statements and highlighted research results supporting its innovative recycling policy. By this means, the company has strengthened its image as a leading “green” and responsible innovator keen to develop the industry of the future. However, four years later, on 16 January 2016, Solvay announced the upcoming closure of its two facilities that were just brought into service due to the collapse of rare earths prices on the international market. Farewell responsibility, innovation and “urban mines” of the future.
This case is just one of the many examples of companies publicly promising to exploit the new "urban mines" of used devices, particularly electronic waste. Such a commitment to recycling not only should have been a further step towards the new green economy markets but it should have also bring into being corporate promises of environmental and social responsibility. Yet, it was largely concealed that these new markets should not only treat present and future toxic waste but were sought to eliminate old toxic legacy from the industrial age. On the La Rochelle site, Rhodia, then Solvay, have stocked thousands of tons of toxic waste from its rare earths production for decades. Among other resources, rare earth production requires a particular ore, monazite, which also contains thorium. Consequently, in addition to their chemical toxicity, these wastes are low-level radioactive. Although these problems have been identified years ago, they are still not solved.
The failure of launching a new green recycling industry and the promise of the new urban mines, which would help eliminating both past and future waste, has faded away for the moment due to the lack of market profitability. And once again, tons of toxic waste continue to contaminate environment and bodies.
The case of the rare earth waste from old industries foreshadows what we can imagine for the future colossal masses of toxic waste containing rare earths, primarily used devices from electronic industry and from the renewable energy industry, such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. The amount of waste containing toxic substances such as heavy metals and plastics increases strongly. And since the failure of the urban mining of toxic waste and of the new markets of a “green” recycling industry, well-known strategies for dealing with problem have been chosen by industries with the complicity or incapacity of public authorities.
The first one consists of rendering damages to body and environment invisible. The many affairs about toxic substances have perfectly shown the mechanisms at work when institutional, social and political invisibility is produced. In cases of toxic industrial waste, however, this invisibility is accompanied – and aggravated – with the construction of collective amnesia in longue durée. In Europe, producing oblivion includes physically erasing the traces of industrial activities in the past from the landscape: storing toxic waste in abandoned mines and pits or burying it just some meters under the surface renders it invisible. These solutions are chosen with the perfect awareness that it does not stop continuous contamination of the soil and the people living on it. Erasing the traces also means transferring toxic waste, by legal or illegal means, to poorer areas, usually in Southern countries. So in fact, and for the moment, the development of waste recycling industry far from solving the problems perpetuates old risk practices with entangled temporalities of causes and effects.