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Cutting waste - saving the planet without destroying economies

By Valerie Yule - posted Thursday, 7 February 2008

It is pathetic to hope that forests can be preserved (see here) while demand still increases for forest products and for clearing forests for farming - including for the expanding crops of biofuels. (For example see here) It is an odd idea that preserving forests can provide sufficient offsets to allow carbon emitting to continue in what is becoming the lucrative business and regulatory nightmare of carbon trading.

Preserving forests to help forestall climate change can only have a hope if demand simultaneously falls. This is only possible when the affluent stop increasing their waste, and the less affluent stabilise their increasing populations. This article is how to stop producing waste, and the challenge of redirecting economies so that growth in waste is no longer essential to prosperity. While we attend to more efficient carbon-free production of energy (Davies, New Matilda), our wasteful use of so much energy should be reduced, not be allowed to continue to increase.

The growing movement for individuals to become more environmentally careful in their life-styles focuses on measures such as less energy-wasting light-globes and re-using plastic bags. Our range of wasting and their economic consequences are still to be thought out.


Waste can be defined as anything turned into rubbish before it needs to be.

About half of everything produced involves waste at one stage or another. Most waste involves carbon emissions at one or more stages in its life - in the production of materials to make it, in the manufacture and in its distribution, in energy required to use it, and the energy and emissions in either recycling or turning it into trash.

A Time-Life double-spread once showed a family of four surrounded by the food it ate in a year. We could do the same, surrounding a family by the waste it threw out in a year. “Taking out the trash” is now the staple chore for discord in American households.

The waste that accounts for so much of our carbon emissions includes the many excesses that are a part of our life-style - things that we have come to take for granted. Even small actions such as 150 million people all filling electric kettles to the top for one cup of tea produce tonnes of carbon emissions. Even consignment to landfill produces emissions usually wasted.

By looking at specifics we can take immediate preventive action which can deliver results long before other projected measures to reduce emissions may start to show effects.

Types of waste

Waste of water adds to carbon emissions, insofar as fossil fuels are involved in distribution.


Waste of power. Products that use less power now receive attention with R&D, and star systems to indicate energy ratings of products.

Waste through destruction by vermin, rust, mould, and inadequate preservation methods, add indirectly to greenhouse gases and are an enormous problem.

Half of the world’s food is estimated to be wasted. In Australia, about 2.2 million tonnes of food waste is generated each year from food outlets and homes. Most of it was edible. “Dumpster divers” eat well. This food waste has involved carbon emissions in its growth, soil fertilisers, processing, distribution and cooking.

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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