A child born in a wealthy country is likely to consume, waste, and pollute more in his lifetime than 50 children born in developing nations. Our energy-burning lifestyles are pushing our planet to the point of no return." George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury
So what is a waste footprint?
Put simply, this is the environmental, economic and social impacts that results from the waste we create. Our waste footprint can be very visible: scarred landscapes from quarrying for aluminum to make cans or cutting down trees to provide paper.
Landfill sites or incinerator plants where most of our waste ends up are also very visual waste footprints. But there are also invisible impacts such as methane, a greenhouse gas, released from landfill sites or toxins leaking out from waste sites into the land or water supplies. So using fewer natural resources and reducing waste is a powerful way of shrinking our footprint.
Waste: a mountain to climb
In the UK we are creating, quite literally, a mountain of waste every year - over 400 million tonnes of it to be precise. Our ever higher levels of waste mean we are using natural resources at a faster and faster rate, putting an increasing strain on the planet’s ability to deal with our waste.
Virtually everything we use creates waste throughout its lifecycle. There is waste associated with the extraction, harvesting, manufacture or transport of materials and products; waste connected with using a product, e.g. a car using petrol or a toy using batteries; and then the harmful effects of waste disposal.
Reducing this vast sum of waste is an uphill task but it is a challenge that must be faced if we are to reduce our footprint on the planet.
You may be surprised to learn that a massive 93% of all waste comes from business and industry - places such as factories, shops and offices and industries like manufacturing, building and transport. So does this mean we should stop blaming ourselves and start pointing the finger at business and industry?
Well, no! Responsibility must be shared between industry and us, the ‘consumers’ (and indeed, legislators such as local authorities, the government and the European Parliament). It is us, after all, who make choices about what we buy: cans of drink, pre-cooked and packaged meals or take-aways, plastic toys, clothes, new mobile phones, washing machines, cars etc. It might be argued that business and industry is simply responding to ‘consumer (our) demand’.
But what can I do?
By refusing to buy products that come with heaps of packaging; refusing products that cannot be recycled and by buying products that use recycled material, such as recycled paper, you can send a strong message to business and industry to clean up its act. We can also lobby our local, regional, national and European representatives to tighten up regulations so that industry and business create less waste.
How it measures up
- Most of the worlds waste is created by just 5% of the world’s people.
- In less than two hours, the waste we produce in the UK would fill the Albert Hall in London.
- 900 million items of clothing are sent to landfill each year in the UK.
- There are 2,300 landfill sites in the UK. Existing landfills are predicted to be full up within the next 5 -10 years.
- On average, 16% of the money spent on products pays for the packaging, which usually then becomes waste.
- Globally, one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year because they become tangled up in, or swallow plastics.
- It has been estimated that 80% of the contents of our bins could be recycled; in 2007 the UK recycled just 27% of its waste.
- One recycled tin can saves enough energy to power a television for 3 hours.
25 two litre drink bottles can be recycled into an adult-sized fleece jacket.
Waste and human rights
Many rights may be denied to people due to our excessive waste, with the impact tending to be greatest among the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged communities.
Some of the rights enshrined under the Convention on the Rights of the Child are threatened by waste. For example, Article 24 relates to the right to clean water, nutritious food and a clean environment. Toxins and poisons from waste dumps can enter the water supply and end up in the food chain threatening these rights. Article 32 calls for children to be protected from doing dangerous work. But it is often children in poorer countries that pick over waste dumps searching for scraps they can collect and sell, risking their health and safety in the process.
For further information on the Convention on the Rights of the Child click here