WASTE is a by-product of consumerism, and it’s not a good thing from a sustainability perspective. In fact, it’s just down right wasteful!

The slightly terrifying issue is that there are no global statistics on the amount of waste we are generating. Globally, we just don’t know.  Even here in Australia, the latest Australian Bureau of Statistic report released in January 2010 is looking at waste in 2007 – that’s five years ago!

So what do the stats show?

In Australia, we generated 43.8 million tonnes of waste in 2006-7.  That works out to be about 2,000 kg / person – that is, in one year.

Suppose we wasted about the same since then, we just added another about 180 million tonnes.  About half of this goes to landfill – 23 million tonnes or so a year.  That requires some enormous big holes being dug and filled somewhere around Australia.

So who is responsible?

The graph below shows the culprits.

But, material waste is only one kind of waste.

Another wasteful behaviour is food waste; losses in initial agricultural production through to household consumption. It’s estimated that 1.3 billion tonnes is wasted globally (about half what is produced) every year.

Animal or vegetable commodities have different waste elements along the food chain.

Across the vegetable chain, losses are due to:

  • mechanical damage and/or spillage during harvest
  • spillage and degradation during handling, storage and transportation between farm and distribution
  • spillage and degradation during industrial or domestic processing
  • losses and waste in the market system
  • and finally, losses and waste during consumption at the household level (discarded before its use-by or due to over buying).
As shown in the chart below, the more industrialised (developed) the region, the more waste at the consumer end.

Interestingly, industrialised agriculture wastes a similar amount per capita to underdeveloped regions in production to retailing. In other words, no efficiencies are gained because of industrialisation.

What about energy waste?

The energy wasted in highly centralised electricity systems is staggering. 70% of the energy that goes into producing energy from coal, for instance, is wasted in the production and distribution process.

But add this to that which is wasted in industrial production.  Take for instance a refrigeration system used in meat storage. It takes 50% more energy to cool the cardboard containers they use compared to using plastic or metal. We could cite numerous examples of energy wasted in buildings, manufacturing and transport. For instance, right now, we could improve the energy efficiency of buildings by at least 50% if we adopted proper practices.

Globally, wasted energy is unequal, with America consuming four times as much energy per capita than the world average.

Then there’s water. According to the European Commission, “water use efficiency could be increased by nearly 40 % through technological improvements alone, and that changes in human behaviour or production patterns could lead to further savings. In a scenario without changes in practices, it was estimated that water use by the public, industry and agriculture would increase by 16 % by 2030. Conversely, the use of water saving technologies and irrigation management in the industrial and agricultural sectors could reduce excesses by as much as 43 %, while water efficiency measures could decrease water wastage by up to a third”. We can assume similar water wastage in other industrialised economies.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was an illustration of a massive waste of capital resources (money) (see Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission).  World wide figures are not available, but in the US alone, it is estimated that assets in retirement accounts lost $2.8 trillion, or about a third of their value, between September 2007 and December 2008. Households lost about $17 trillion over the same period, mostly due to the crash in house prices.  (A trillion dollars by the way is $1,000,000,000,000.)

This is only an extreme example of capital waste. Closure, bankruptcy, acquisition, downsizing and outsourcing are constant examples.

Due to the GFC, the US economy shed 3.6 million jobs in 2008 —the largest annual plunge since record keeping began in 1940. By December 2009, the United States had lost another 4.7 million jobs. Unemployment and underemployment are a waste of labour resources.

We are indeed a wasteful world.

Efficiency is the most important catch cry of the 21st century. It goes hand in glove with sustainability.

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