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