Only about half the waste that is produced in most of the developing world is formally collected, the rest pushed – in reality or metaphorically – through holes in the wall like this. The International Solid Waste Association recently estimated that we are now producing around 7-10 billion tonnes of waste in our cities every year, a figure that is set to double within two decades, as more and more people move to live in cities, big ones, like Jakarta. As their report argues, the waste problem is ultimately a consumption problem, and starts with what we consume, how we consume it, and how often we buy something new.
This global consumption juggernaut is still widely misunderstood. On the internet, for example, there are a lot of people telling you how to consume ‘smarter’ and ‘greener’, with the inspiring message that if you want to change the world you must start with yourself. But this has little chance of making any real impact on the planet. For the consumption problem, like the waste problem, is not just a matter of our choices at the checkout. Rather, it is a systemic problem, that is, a problem entangled with the larger systems we rely on, their history, economic power and global dominance. These provide us with food and clothing, shelter, healthcare, power, transport, information and communication, and these are all ‘high-carbon’ systems, that is, they depend largely on fossil fuels for energy, and produce many tonnes of waste and emissions.
Since they dominate our way of life, it is difficult, time-consuming, and in many instances, impossible, to opt out of them. For example, you might rely on a power supply in your home which is from a coal-fired power station, or on a supermarket that requires you to drive a couple of miles every time you need to shop. You can do quite a bit around your home and in your life to reduce your environmental footprint, such as riding a bike around town, but it is unlikely that you will be able to change the larger background systems on which your life, and that of your neighbours, depend. So, changing yourself, unfortunately, is not enough.
A big issue here is escalation. For there are now more and more of us consuming more products, with many of these containing parts, such as chemicals, metals and plastics, that are toxic in the environment – what I call in my book post-cautionary products – and we are buying these in larger numbers than ever before, and using and trashing them more frequently. A surge in the sheer numbers of goods we are using, and more frequently replacing, I argue, is the most powerful engine presently driving Climate Change.
This surge is also partly driven by changing expectations and standards. We expect our products to be cheaper, and we expect to own more of them, and to upgrade them more frequently. All this is new, and was not shared by those who grew up before the Second World War. My father, for example, had a watch that he had bought before the Second World War, and it was still working when he died in 2000. He had no other watch, and no interest in buying a ‘better’ one. Now I own 3, the oldest being about 7 years old, and two are not working, and getting them repaired will cost me more than replacing them. Not just watches, but whole kitchens, furniture, cars, phones, computers, kettles, toasters, clothes and toothbrushes, entangle us in similar dilemmas.
None of this is the individual’s fault. The reasons why this ‘churn’ is happening are complex, and in part driven by an ongoing quest for efficiency in production, by falling prices and by a seemingly endless round of technological innovation in every domain. For example, the first mobile phones were often retained for three or more years by their owners, whereas now we keep these products on average for only 18 months or less. This reduction in the length of retention means that producers now make twice as many as they once did, with all the energy and material requirements this involves.
Upgrading phones, like upgrading cars or fridges, is also now easier than it has ever been, and continuously encouraged by advertising and the media. Since so many things are now made to break, or expensive to be repaired, not upgrading is also actively discouraged, as I discovered with my old watches. Service contracts for mobile phones, for example, are only for two years, and well before the end of this contract we are offered a new one, if we sign up to a new contract.
Making a few more environmentally friendly products alone cannot fix this juggernaut. For example, there are more and more eco-efficient cars on the road, but because we are buying more of them, their benefits cannot solve ‘the car problem’, which now generates around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, buying healthy foods and being educated about the importance of diet in school can’t do much good if your child’s school has fast-food franchises on the property or next door.
As I argue in my book, the first step to find solutions to these problems is to understand the scale and depth of the problem itself. As individuals, we cannot invent or design our way out of it, and so we need to work together to find the solutions required, and to implement them without misinformation, fear or prejudice. This will also mean looking into what marketing involves, presents and conceals. For this reason, I emphasise the value of collaboration or ‘co-creation’ in design and development in my book. For example, how do we clean our teeth without creating a toothbrush mountain somewhere else? Or how do we get to and from work without driving? The solutions to these problems might be simple, but to solve them we need to collaborate and decide what to do on the basis of real evidence. And to really solve the problem, we will need to carry everyone with us, and not just those who already agree with us. This is radically different to the divisive finger-pointing environmental politics we have become used to.
 See http://www.iswa.org/nc/home/news/news-detail/browse/1/article/press-release-global-waste-management-outlook-gwmo/109/.