Blog 18.12.23

How did we become so wasteful? 

Each year, we produce more than 2 billion tonnes of solid municipal waste globally. By 2050, it will be 3.4 billion — far outpacing population growth. At the current rate, we will need three earths to sustain us. Included in this “waste” are valuable resources such as $500 billion in textiles and $62 billion in rare earth metals used in electronics.  

Why is so much going to waste? Partly because we buy cheap goods and bin them before their time. In the UK, a third of appliances, and nearly a quarter of electronics are tossed out while still in working order. The temptation to upgrade can be irresistible, in part because identity can be tied to our stuff. On average, people replace smartphones, which should last about seven years, every one to three years. 

Many products, like clothing and household appliances, are more affordable than they used to be, making them easier to replace. A new washing machine, for example, is 10-20 times cheaper today compared to 1960. In some cases, replacement parts cost more than whole items — think printer cartridges. Some items are intentionally manufactured to fall apart or be irreparable through “planned obsolescence”.  

Previous generations were more likely to fix broken household items, or at least take them to repair shops. Home repair was easier, of course, as many items had fewer electronics. But nowadays it’s less hassle to replace items than to fix them. Why bother repairing a toaster if a new one can be delivered to your door the next day? Even if you wanted to repair the toaster, where would you take it?

Of course, people of previous generations didn’t all behave sustainably, but many things considered normal today are incredibly wasteful. Unwanted textiles, single use plastics, and gadgets like smart water bottles and electric wine bottle openers clog our landfills and are often a disproportionate burden to communities and regions not equipped to manage large amounts of imported waste. For example, in Ghana, 40% of the 15 million items of used clothing taken there from all over the world end up as landfill or polluting waterways, and in countries like the Philippines and Malaysia, plastic waste from developed nations is causing similar issues. 

What is the solution? We can demand longer lasting products, and refuse to buy ones designed to be disposable. We can upcycle and buy second-hand. We can hang onto products longer. And we can make it cooler to be sustainable than it is to be a consumer. This is the current trend amongst younger generations. The question is: will people change fast enough?  

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Olivia Bonifant

Sustainability Consultant

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