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Unchecked consumption will waste the planet

  • 31 October 2007
Cutting waste is the fastest way to reduce carbon emissions and cope with other crises of climate change. Waste is about turning resources into non-usable rubbish without getting full value from them. Waste causes half our carbon emissions, and wastes resources and the human lives that produce them.

According to the Australia Institute's 2005 report, 'Wasteful Consumption in Australia', in 2004, 20 million Australians threw away $5.3 billion in food alone, including $2.9 billion of fresh food, $630 million of uneaten takeaway food, and $876 million of leftovers. In addition, the Conservation Foundation found that each Australian household wastes an average of $1,226 per annum on items they purchase but do not use.

Why is the alternative of cutting waste to reduce carbon emissions not receiving the same attention as carbon trading, which balances continued emitting with problematic offsets?

The big snag is economic. As NSW Premier Morris Iemma has said, 'There is no point in saving the planet if we ruin the economy doing it.' If everyone wastes less, what happens to jobs? What happens to business? If we buy less and throw out less, what happens to shops?

The problem becomes absurd when we consider that the richest 10 per cent of the world's population must continue to buy and consume wastefully, to prevent global economic collapse. Meanwhile two billion people barely survive.

A logical response is make the global economy more rational. Accept that capitalism can run to excess and can be improved. Its great advantages are that it encourages enterprise and saves capital for production that serves people's needs. A great disadvantage is the perceived necessity for unstoppable growth, which is leading to ecological disaster. The challenge is growth in quality, not quantity.

Regarding the effect on jobs, the truth is that if all the jobs needing to be done were being done, there would be no unemployment. How can these jobs be financed? Beside changes in personal lifestyles, political and economic action is needed. These include changing taxation to discourage wasteful production and depletion of resources, encouraging employment and research into the products that are needed, and salvage that emphasises re-using even more than energy-intensive recycling. Building and transport infrastructure need rejigging before it is too late.

So many of the goods we see in shop windows will soon be waste, mostly landfill — we need more products that are repairable and durable. We should enjoy