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Cutting waste - saving the planet without destroying economies

By Valerie Yule - posted Thursday, 7 February 2008

Products are wasted through poor quality, low durability, planned obsolescence and reckless purchasing. Household appliances, furniture, plastic-ware, clothes, computer hardware and cars are increasingly made for shorter lives and unnecessarily difficulty or cost to repair. Consumers are almost forced to consume as they must continually replace short-life products such as kitchenware and unmendable chairs.

Waste through “conspicuous consumption” . We have gone from extremes of valuing thrift to status through wastefulness. Waste through valuing the latest fashion and brand new appearances is seen in early replacements of car fleets and furnishings, and in the expanding waste of packaging and paper (PDF 23 KB), regardless of how sourced. Imagine the consequences if legal documents of, for example, 15,000 pages (with possibly the intended effect of bamboozling everyone) were restricted to hard copies under 100 pages? Or if it became fashionable to re-stamp stationary with new letterheads and logos rather than throw out tonnes of documents and envelopes with every new trend. Children’s hand-me-downs and re-using textbooks that are not out-of-date need not be unthinkable.

Unnecessary excess

The “always use an elephant” phenomenon means using large power-consuming equipment for small tasks. Our wonderful labour-saving equipment banishes the appalling drudgery of the past; however, taking its use to excess means unnecessary carbon-emissions, fossil-fuel consumption and resource waste, and humans who suffer from insufficient useful exercise.


Common practices nation-wide add up to millions of tonnes of every variety of waste. For example:

  • the use of four wheel-drive “Toorak tractors” and “personal tanks” for local urban use;
  • motor-mowers for small, flat suburban lawns when a fast modern light-weight manual-mower can be used, even by old ladies;
  • tumble-dryers when hygienic outdoor drying is possible. Yet in some places, clotheslines are banned, and are sometimes claimed to lower property values (see here);
  • vacuum-cleaning even when everyday cleaning only requires brooms and carpet-sweepers;
  • clothing that requires dry-cleaning when washable clothing would be as good;
  • insinkerators and other wasteful disposal of kitchen rubbish when worm farms and compost bins are feasible; and
  • doing the local shopping by car, when a shopping jeep could carry the goods.

We should be able to use “little elephants” to help us, while the “big elephants” are available at times when they are needed.

The conditions where we live can enforce the production of needless waste: this needs to be prevented by regulation - for example, buildings need facilities for storage, and means to re-use, recycle and salvage goods.

There is enormous waste in the building industry - in the types of construction permitted, the complete destruction of properties in order to redevelop, and too little recycling of materials discarded in construction and renovations.

Jared Diamond, in Collapse:How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and historians from the time of Herodotus have noted how many former societies were at the height of their power and accomplishments shortly before they collapsed. They have also been at their height of wastefulness and excess. Despite our present predicament, we are increasing our plane flights, new cars, freeways, even bottled water.


What is holding us back from sanity? The major reason is expressed by New South Wales Premier Morriss Iemma. “What is the use of saving the planet if the economy is wrecked?” If people do not waste, they buy less, and what happens to retailers, industry and GDP figures?

We mustn’t leave it up to scientists to be the only inventors to help forestall climate change. We need human mental energy to develop the virtues of capitalism to enable sustainable prosperity without continual growth. The real purpose of production and of the economy itself is to serve human needs. Australia can be a leader in jobs, industries, new quality products and research that are needed for a waste-free low-emission society. If all the jobs that need to be done were being done, there would be no unemployment. The consumer society can become the user society.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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