Current levels of consumption in the UK and other rich world countries are unsustainable. If everyone in the world consumed at the average rate we do in the UK, we would need three planets . Not only do we need to move to ‘one planet living’ in all the ways we use the planet’s resources, we also need to reduce our dependence on resources that are running out and address the impact of our consumption and waste habits on the environment and in particular the climate. Many of the products and services we use, from food, clothes, electronics, home heating, transport and holidays have social and environmental impacts and energy implications; in their production and distribution, when in ‘use’ and when they are thrown away as waste. Most products we use are made from or are dependent on oil for their production.
As UK society has become more prosperous and the number of separate households has increased in the last 40 years, consumption levels have risen sharply. There is also huge inequity in consumption patterns both within the UK and globally. 20% of the world currently consumes 75% of the world’s resources, matched by a similar pattern of unequal access and use of energy. There is huge potential to deliver improvements through consuming better products and services, and learning to consume differently.
“One of the main sinks of energy in the ‘developed’ world is the creating of stuff. In its natural life cycle, stuff passes through 3 stages. First, a newborn stuff is displayed in its shiny packaging on a shelf in a shop. At this stage, stuff is called ‘goods’. As soon as the stuff is taken home and sheds its packaging, it undergoes a transformation from ‘goods’ to its second form ‘clutter’. The clutter lives with its owner for a period of months or years. During this period the clutter is largely ignored by its owner, who is off at the shops buying more goods. Eventually by a miracle of modern alchemy, the clutter is transformed into its final forum, rubbish.
The embodied energy of products and their constituent materials can vary considerably from 40kWh/kg for aluminium to 30kWh/kg for PET plastic down to 5kWh/kg for wood. Based on average UK consumption levels of ‘stuff’ (i.e. excluding food etc), David Mackay has estimated that the average energy consumption per person is 48kWh/day for production and another 12kWh/day to transport it.
In 2001, the European Union conducted a study finding that 33% of shoppers surveyed had “high level of addiction to rash or unnecessary consumption’.”
affluenza, n. 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by the pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.
The true costs of producing goods has been distorted by the purchase price of goods excluding environmental costs (i.e. disposal charges, clean up costs of manufacturing processes and impacts on the climate), instead these costs are hidden, often being paid by foreign countries who produce the goods and through our taxes when we pay for landfill or other countries to dispose of wastes. Only in the last few years has the WEEE Directive required the disposal costs of white goods (mainly appliances) to be paid at the point of sale. Hence it is currently not a level playing field between better quality goods that last longer and have less environmental impact (or are easier to recycle etc.) and usually more expensive to produce, compared with cheap throwaway goods that end up in China for disposal.
The average person in the UK throws out their body weight in rubbish every 3 months. Every year in Devon we throw away 300,000 tonnes of rubbish – that’s equivalent to a football-pitch sized pile as tall as the Empire State Building. And every year millions of wild animals and birds are killed by this rubbish A 2008 study by the EU found that a binding minimum EU recycling target of 50% for municipal waste by 2030 could save more than 89 million tonnes of CO2 per year (ie the equivalent of taking 31 million cars off the road), concluding that recycling was better for the environment than incineration. The study also stated that if waste volumes were stabilised at 2006 levels this would save 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalents going on to recommend a minimum recycling rate of 70% for industrial, commercial and construction wastes by 2020
Packaging waste is a large component of the waste problem. Various EU Directives and national waste laws have attempted to deal with the problem, in 2008 the UK recycled 61% of its packaging waste (a huge increase from 28% in 1997), diverting over 66 million tonnes from landfill, and avoiding 8.9million tonnes of CO2. In Devon we use 150 million new plastic bags each week, many of which go to landfill after a single use.
Over 50% of domestic waste is biodegradable organic material consisting of putrescible kitchen waste and contaminated paper. Currently this material is either sent to landfill mixed in with other waste where it produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more lethal than CO2. Alternatively it is composted and used back on the land. An energy efficient system would have a combination of small scale home composting and large scale collection and anaerobic digestion, as the later captures the (atmospherically lethal) methane from decomposition of organic waste.
Most human sewerage waste is currently disposed off via water treatment processes to render it less noxious and redirect the water component back into waterways. Totnes uses an anaerobic digester for municipal sewage from the town and some outlying parishes. Most animal slurry wastes are generally land spread and the nutrient rich waters flow back into groundwater and streams, polluting waterways.
We are wasting valuable resources and magnifying the problems of over consumption by not tackling resource management and over consumption with a cradle to grave approach.
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