THE GUNSTONS BLOG

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Will future generations pay for the products you purchase today?

Out of mind, out of sight? – this is the mantra that most of us either knowingly or unknowingly subscribe to when purchasing, consuming and disposing the products that sustain us.

Generally speaking, we have no idea where the products we purchase are manufactured or where the raw materials that the products are comprised of are extracted from. We don’t know where the materials are extracted from, whether the products are manufactured in a manner that harms the earth, or whether the labourers suffer ill-health or bodily damage because of unsafe working conditions.

The mere fact that we pay say, R50.00 for a certain product does not mean that it cost that amount. Generally speaking the price of the product does not factor in the true cost to the environment and the cost of labourers exploitation for example. Because the price of pollution prevention, environmental rehabilitation, secure labour practices, and reasonable employee remuneration is not paid by many producers, they can sell products at much cheaper prices than would be possible if all these externalised costs had been paid. When we pay for any given product, we only pay a portion of the price, and generally speaking the balance of the tab is picked up by the likes of polluted rivers and the downstream communities who no longer have access to safe drinking water.

Now, imagine that for a period of say three months, all of the waste that you generated from the products you consume would not be collected by the garbage truck. Where would you put it? Would there be enough space for the waste in your home? By having a considerable amount of waste at home, you would start to pay some the price for products you buy and the waste you generate. When the rubbish truck collects our garbage up every week, we pass the cost of our waste on to the earth where the garbage is dumped.

This is a justice issue; we are entrenched in lifestyles that we don’t pay for and we pass the cost on to those who can least afford it and do not have a voice. Future generations are set to pay for the debt they did not incur and suffer for our current short-sightedness.

It is in this context that the National Environmental Management: Waste Act has been introduced. The Act provides for the concept of a life cycle assessment (LCA) and defines it to mean a process where the potential environmental effects or impacts of a product or service throughout the life of that product or service are evaluated. An LCA, correctly conducted would inform us what the real costs of products are and would consider all aspects of extraction, manufacture, transport, consumption, use, and disposal.

The Act goes on to say that the Minister may make regulations regarding the obligation of producers of a specified product or class of product to carry out a life cycle assessment in relation to the product. Coupled with this concept is the concept of extended producer liability which empowers the Minister to require producers of specified products to carry out life-cycle assessments of their products and employ waste-reduction programmes. Producers may further be subject to labelling, composition and packaging requirements.

If and when implemented by the Minister, these requirements will be costly for producers to implement. However these provisions promoting sustainable development have the power to help ensure that the price of the products sold, the same products we buy are not produced, consumed and disposed of at the expense of people and the environment, out of sight and out of mind.

Garth Watson

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