State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Consumption, Waste and our Changing Lifestyle

Last week, New York Times reporter Jake Halpern wrote an insightful piece on the “Big Business of Scavenging in Post-Industrial America.” Halpern reported that:

The one thing we reliably produce as a country — and produce more of than any other nation in the world per capita — is garbage. Americans make up just 4 percent of the world’s population, but we account for 12 percent of the planet’s yearly waste. Annually, according to the E.P.A., we landfill 840,000 tons of plastic plates and cups, 3.4 million tons of diapers, 8.2 million tons of clothing and footwear and 910,000 tons of towels, sheets and pillowcases.”

While most of our garbage ends up in landfills, almost half of it is recycled or burned to generate energy. A growing amount of food waste is composted or sent to anaerobic digesters to make fertilizer and natural gas. According to EPA: “the disposal of waste to landfills has decreased from 94 percent of the amount generated in 1960 to under 53 percent of the amount generated in 2015.” As landfills have gotten more expensive, the cost of treating garbage has become competitive with simply dumping it in a hole in the ground. We can expect this trend to become even more pronounced in the near future as land prices go up, minerals become more expensive and the developing world develops. Halpern’s piece details America’s $32 billion a year business in recycling scrap metals. As mining metal becomes more difficult and the need for metals increases, there is a growing business in mining metals from our discarded appliances and infrastructure.

Although American consumption and waste remain high, our patterns of consumption are beginning to change. The amount of waste we produce per capita grew from 2.68 pounds per person per day in 1960 to 4.74 pounds per person in 2000 but has been declining since then and declined to 4.48 pounds per person per day in 2015. The nature of our consumption and the treatment of our waste has been changing throughout the 21st century.

In the United States, 80 percent of our GDP is now in the service economy and a growing number of people are disconnected from the part of the economy that makes things. On the consumption side, the race to have the most stuff seems to have crested for many people. Mall shopping as recreation has been reduced and replaced by e-commerce which can be less time consuming and is often less pursued as a social activity. When thinking about consumption I think about lifestyle and ask two questions: (1) What do people spend their time doing? (2) How is that changing?  Technology has fundamentally changed what we do with our time and the most significant change over the past generation has been the amount of time we are communicating with each other, the time we spend disseminating and processing information and the hours we devote to being entertained.

The cost of using a telephone has been reduced dramatically since the development of the cell phone, internet and satellite communications. Fifty years ago, an international phone call was an expensive luxury. Today the cost of a phone call or a Skype, Zoom or FaceTime visual call is so low as to be virtually negligible. And so, people spend hours a day communicating with friends and family globally. When you add texting, email and social media to the mix, the amount of time we spend communicating continues to grow. In the past, you assumed that if you saw someone walking alone down the street in New York City and they were talking, they were at a minimum a little weird. Today you look for their AirBuds or headphones and realize they are engaged in a phone conversation. From a waste production perspective this form of consumption-communication has very little environmental impact.

More and more people are spending their time engrossed in whatever is happening on their screens: you might be playing an interactive game with friends in different locations; perhaps you’re watching a movie or sports event; you might be engaged in a video conversation with a relative or friend; you might even be reading a blog or a book. To the extent that this form of interaction replaces live human interaction, it is a little scary to those of us born before the internet age. But as much as people spend time in the virtual world, there still seems to be a type of communication and interaction that requires that we sit in the same room. That is probably why business people travel thousands of miles to have dinner with a client or a colleague. It’s probably why online forms of education will never replace live classrooms. Very often electronic communication stimulates in-person contact. But time spent in the virtual world is one that has little negative impact on the real world of ecology and life.

Our changing lifestyle in the developed world has a great deal to do with the changing nature of work. Throughout human history, most people spent most of their time pursuing food, clothing and shelter. Those activities were strenuous and labor-intensive. First, humans figured out how to replace some human labor with domesticated animals and then we figured out how to replace animals with machines. Increasingly, the production of the material items we consume has become automated and requires less and less human labor. At the start of the 20th century, 40 percent of Americans worked in agriculture. Last year it was around 1 percent. We grow more food than ever in the United States, but we grow more of it with machines than people.

The transition to a service-oriented brain-based economy means that most of our work is either creative, analytic or serving customers in some way. This has contributed to a different style of consumption when we leave work. For some people, the absence of physical exertion at work leads them to spend recreation time at gyms, hiking, jogging or biking. For others, it leads them to want to engage their brains in activities under their own control, rather than for the organization they work for. Those are the folks playing “Words with Friends” or “Minecraft” sitting next to you on the subway.

The other growing form of recreation is travel and tourism. People can see images of famous sites from around the world on the web and they want to visit those sites. They want to taste different foods and get a sense of how people live in different places. They want to climb spectacular mountains, sit in famous theaters and religious shrines and be able to imagine a different life in a different place. It’s true that this form of consumption can be very resource-intensive and can generate greenhouse gas pollution along with the waste generated by over-consumption from people in a new environment, with no work to do.

I think that these forms of consumption will continue to grow along with the waste they generate. People with the wealth to see the world will want to see it. The solution here is to apply circular economy concepts to production and consumption. Every material product or service we consume should be produced with the least possible environmental impact and after a product or service is consumed, the waste from that process should be used as an input to another productive process. With human ingenuity, engineering and reasonable rules of the game (regulation), we can grow our economy while reducing its environmental impact. We have done this in the U.S. and much of Europe for about four decades. We do not need to sit alone in a dark cave with a candle to live sustainably. We can build our production and consumption around the principles of environmental sustainability.

We are going to need to do this because people in the developed world like the stuff they have and people in the developing world want to enjoy the same stuff. The fact the more and more consumption is non-material is an indication that our own needs and desires are not necessarily in conflict with environmental sustainability. But a failure to maintain and improve economic life around the world is a prescription for political instability. That instability could lead to violence and terror that can endanger both people and the planet.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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