Empirical evidence presented in a paper available from this website supports the hypothesis that the UK began to reduce its consumption of physical resources in the early years of the last decade, well before the economic slowdown that started in 2008. (An article about this contention was published in the Guardian on 1st November 2011). This conclusion applies to a wide variety of different physical goods including, for example, water, building materials and paper and includes the impact of items imported from overseas. Both the weight of goods entering the economy and the amounts finally ending up as waste probably began to fall from sometime between 2001 and 2003.
Summary data is provided below. The full paper is here: Peak_Stuff_17.10.11
If correct, this finding is important. It suggests that economic growth in a mature economy does not necessarily increase the pressure on the world’s reserves of natural resources and on its physical environment. An advanced country may be able to decouple economic growth and continuously increasing volumes of material goods consumed and a sustainable economy does not necessarily have to be a no-growth economy.
Summary of data in this paper
CategoryPeak yearDecline betweenpeak and 2007
InputsTotal Material Requirement20014%
Direct Material Consumption20015%
Uses of biomassFood (calories per head)About the 1960sTens of percent
Food (grammes of meat per person)20033%
Textiles*2007May not have peaked
Uses of mineralsCement198426%
Some fertilisers (P and K)Mid 1980sMore than 50%
Use of fossil fuelsPrimary energy production20013%
Some fertilisers (N)198740%
WasteOverall wasteEarly part of last decadeTens of percent
Domestic waste per household2002/35%
 The decline between 2003 and 2007 occurred at the same time as UK population rose by about 2.4%. Source: ONS population estimates.