Rubbish

In a report published this week (1st May 2012), the UK’s Royal Society asserted (p68) that the accumulation of waste products in a modern society is strongly linked to the size of GDP. In simple terms, more growth equals more rubbish.  Similar jeremiads about the severe impact of economic growth on global ecologies pervade the report. So the authors might be slightly embarrassed to see the latest data on household rubbish published a couple of days later by the UK government. These numbers show that the average person now produces less waste than fifteen years ago. Let’s get the facts right, please: economic progress is not necessarily bad for the environment.

The volume of waste produced by an economy is a good index of its impact on the natural world. Everything we consume starts by being extracted from the earth’s crust or soil, is then processed to make it useful to us and eventually turns into waste. Whether it is an iPad, a hamburger or a Volkwagen Golf, our goods all ultimately come from the ground. After delivery a service to us, everything is discarded and becomes rubbish, collected by the local council every week or so.

The conventional view of the world is that growth in GDP always takes the form of increased consumption of physical goods. As we get richer, we’re told,  we buy more stuff. For a long while this simplification was broadly correct. A large fraction of the extra income that households gained in wealthy countries between 1960 and about 2000 was spent on things you could touch. We bought cars, washing machines, more clothes, TVs and garden furniture. As the Oxford sociologist Jonathan Gershuny points out, the second half of the 20th century is often portrayed as the beginning of the ‘service’ economy but it is characterised more accurately as the period when household life became mechanised. Households acquired a large number of heavy machines.

That era ended in advanced economies a decade or so ago. In the UK, most indices of physical consumption show a decline from around 2002, a point I have called ‘peak stuff’. That decline will continue. We have the machines we need and the ones we have last longer (compare the lifespan of a car today with one a generation ago for example), and are generally lighter and easier to recycle. I know it is difficult to believe, but we eat less, use less water and travel fewer kilometres each year. Broadly speaking, we are slowly replacing the consumption of physical goods with the pursuit of pleasurable experiences. Each year, a larger fraction of our income goes on visiting the David Hockney exhibition, attending a Manchester United football match or paying for out Netflix subscription.

We see this in the amount of waste we throw away. Waste production per person in the UK peaked at around 520 kg a year in the year to March 2002. The latest two quarters figures are fifteen per cent below that level. The lastest quarterly figures suggest a figure of about 443 kg. The decline from year to year isn’t smooth but is probably getting steeper. (Please note that the last two columns in the chart below are for the most recent quarters. The apparent slackening in the rate of decline is an artefact of the way DEFRA draws the chart). Today’s waste levels are well below the levels of 1996/7. By contrast, in the period from 1997 to today, inflation-adjusted GDP has risen by over a third. (This isn’t quite a fair comparison since the UK population has also increased during the last fifteen years). Household rubbish is actually a small fraction of the total flow of waste out of the economy. Construction waste is far more important but this is also falling sharply. All in all, we produce far less rubbish than we did a couple of decades ago.

The probable implication? In contrast to what the Royal Society says, growth may be good for the environment. We waste less and are prepared to devote more cash to ecological protection. Technology improvements mean things last longer and use fewer physical resources to make.  Regretfully, I have to say that the world’s most prestigious scientific institution should spend more time checking its facts. As people get richer, they don’t buy, and then dispose of,  more goods. As England shows, more GDP doesn’t mean more waste.

 

Source: DEFRA, Local Authority Collected Waste for England, May 2012

(http://www.defra.gov.uk/statistics/environment/waste/wrfg22-wrmswqtr/)

  1. Alan Barclay’s avatar

    Hi Chris, thanks for the essay; this is an important topic and the facts are very interesting. However, a few of your points don’t feel quite right.

    Household machines are cheaper and more efficient than before although they seem to have shorter lives. Equipment seems to be made to throw away (or recycle nowadays) rather than repaired. Improved material and energy efficiency must be balanced against full lifecycle embodied energy. Much of that is incurred by developing countries and thus may distort our statistics.

    Less landfill is surely due to regulation and improved recycling collections and facilities. I’m not at all clear how this is correlated to GDP. In other words, we’re starting to take recycling seriously irrespective of how ‘rich’ we feel.

    The largest reductions are industrial and building waste. That hints at decline rather than growth.

    It may be that we are spending a higher proportion of income on services, although it would be interesting to see the trend for the last 5 years as prices of globalised goods, food and energy have started to rise.

    Many feel that the GDP ‘growth’ of the last 20 years or so is more about financial tricks (increasing the amount of money, much of it through debt) rather than genuine created wealth (physical and intellectual capital). It’s not clear that once debt is stripped away that most people really have more to spend. As wages in developing countries rise and they require consuming countries to keep more of their waste it doesn’t look like we’re going to get another ‘globalisation dividend’ that will encourage more consumption of physical goods. And energy costs continue to spiral, sucking away our discretionary spending power. So, my guess is that from now on we’ll be spending a higher proportion of disposable income on goods and that will tend to depress consumption, and hence waste.

    In short, I suspect that the trend we’re seeing with these waste figures is a product of multiple influences over a short period of history, and not some general correlation with our collective monetary wealth.

    Looking ahead to see if the trend will continue, our current wasteful ways are certainly changing, but will that be fast enough to avoid hitting serious limits in the decades ahead? Possibly so, although I’m unclear how GDP could continue to increase without even greater increases to energy consumption as the fraction of available energy devoted to procurement of other energy and materials inexorably rises.

    To my mind the most interesting issue with waste flows is the balance between material scarcity and energy. Today we have abundant energy and could recycle almost everything if we were so minded (in practice just by setting duties on raw materials). In an energy constrained future we may wish to recycle everything but struggle due to prohibitive energy costs, thereby throttling consumption compared to today. GDP decline will then correlate with reduced waste!

  2. mike Yule’s avatar

    Thanks, Chris. This is good to hear in a sense, but does your analysis take account of the outsourcing of production of our goods?

  3. Caspar Henderson’s avatar

    Thanks, interesting stuff. Volume of rubbish may have been in decline but the carbon trend in carbon not so much if emissions ‘off-shored’ to China and elsewhere taken into account http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/apr/18/britain-outsourcing-carbon-emissions-china (?) Pollution is just another form of waste

  4. Jerry McLaughlin’s avatar

    Chris – very interesting points and I suspect the real level of “waste” is less significant than the statistics suggest in any case. For example construction waste is a big number but in fact a great deal of this “waste” is re used, for example “hard” demolition waste is re-processed in aggregates and fill markets. In which case is it really waste? If we focus on developing/redeveloping brownfield sites it is inevitable that we will generate demolition waste which then feeds into waste statistics even if the material is usefully reused/recycled. Ironically I guess if we just developed greenfield sites the resulting waste arisings would be minimal because no demolition would be required and the statistics would look much better. But perhaps other issues to consider !

    Similarly mineral waste is a very big number but in the largest sector of mineral extraction – aggregates – there is very little real waste because operators make full use of the resources. However, if a minerals operator strips soil and overburden to get access to the mineral I understand that the soil and overburden is classified as waste – even though it will often be retained for use in the quarry restoration. So this material may be classified as waste but is really just a measure of material moved.

    So we may be debating statistical definitions of waste – which in some cases may be a pretty meaningless – rather than waste as a reasonable person would understand it.

  5. Gillian’s avatar

    “By contrast, in the period from 1997 to today, inflation-adjusted GDP has risen by over a third. (This isn’t quite a fair comparison since the UK population has also increased during the last fifteen years)”

    So why didn’t you use GDP per capita?

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