Driving global economic growth calls for ever increasing quantities of resources – more lignite, oil, wood, fruit, vegetables and cereals. The amount of raw materials needed to manufacture the products we want has almost doubled since 2000. On average, each person on the planet consumed over 16 tons of raw materials – the weight of eleven cars – in 2018. People in high-income countries consume 13 times the quantity of their counterparts in low-income countries. Since high-income countries don’t usually have sufficient resources to meet their needs, they import a lot of them from countries in the Global South.
Global plastic production alone increased from 2.1 million tons in 1950 to 406 million in 2015. By that point, we had generated more than 6.9 billion tons of plastic waste. What’s worse, nearly 80 percent of it ended up in landfill or the environment and only nine percent was recycled. And this is despite increasing media coverage in recent years of the fallout from environmental pollution, such as plastic waste. Air, water and soil pollution pose major challenges in many countries. It is also estimated that each year one third – 1.3 billion tons – of all the food produced goes to waste. At the same time, more than two billion people around the world suffer from hunger or malnutrition.
Resource consumption is especially high in industrialized countries, such as Germany. On average, every German throws away 1.5 kilograms of clothing, 85 kilograms of food and around 25 kilograms of plastic packaging each year. In an attempt to stem the tide of plastic waste, the EU intends to ban single-use plastic such as straws and cotton buds. Plastic packaging, however, is still ubiquitous.
Even separating waste properly only has limited benefits because half of the plastic waste cannot be recycled. In Germany, food rescue programs that recover unused food from the trash are still illegal despite dramatic food waste. A change in legislation could follow the French model, which is set to prohibit retailers from disposing of food that can still be consumed.
We need a profound shift in our production and consumption practices. That means turning our backs on throwaway culture and embracing a circular economy with less wasted and higher levels of reuse and recycling. Global consumption of material goods has more than tripled since 1970 and there’s no sign of it slowing down. Sustainable consumption and production aim to do more and better with less. This opens the door to enhancing prosperity through economic activities that minimize resource use, material fatigue and pollution over the entire product life cycle while at the same time improving quality of life for all. Another focal area encompassing everyone from producer to end consumer is supply chains. Educating consumers about sustainable consumption and lifestyles, providing relevant information through standards and labels as well as participating in sustainable public procurement are just a few of the measures in this regard.