Everyone is probably familiar with the “reality” television show, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”. It is a digital landfill dedicated to the glorification of gluttonous consumerism. A Dead Kennedys’ song (see, “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death”) evoked similar sentiment when Jello and the gang railed against the excesses of 1980s consumerism. Solid waste is discussed extensively in Other Inconvenient Truths Beyond Global Warming (2015). So what is there to clean up for the Kardashians? There is a much compelling and sobering “other inconvenient truth” that raises its ugly head. This truth not only applies to the Kardashians, but also to many of their fellow Hollywood celebrities and also many of the members of the economic elitist1% club which drew the wrath of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Please understand that this other inconvenient truth is not the sole purview of the Hollywood crowd but it crosses all strata of the 1%. That’s right, you can also include Dick Cheney, the Koch brothers, Hillary Clinton, and Michael Moore as also being complicit. But being complicit with what? The simple fact of the matter is that with increased affluence comes increased wasting of resources. Data collected by the World Bank has shown that the rate of wasting resources is much higher with the affluent than it is with lower economic groups. In other words, those members of society that are the most economically privileged or fortunate are the most promiscuously wasteful. It is a sad, but true, irony.
The referenced World Bank report (Hoornweg and Bhada -Tata, 2012) assembled data which showed that waste generation varies according to both region and economic levels. Waste generation rates vary as a function of affluence. It appears to be clear that greater societal technological sophistication and affluence results in greater per capita waste generation. Consider the chart showing the impact of affluence on waste generation. High-income countries produce the most waste per capita, while low income countries produce the least solid waste per capita (Hoornweg and Bhada -Tata, 2012). The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries generate 572 million tones of solid waste per year. The per capita values range from 1.1 to 3.7 kg per person per day with an average of 2.2 kg/capita/day.
Data for this trend is reinforced in the graph shown below from a World Bank Report (Hoornweg and Bhada -Tata, 2012). These data show the profound impact of affluence which is strongly linked with societal technological complexity on waste generation. As human societies get more technologically capable, waste generation rates per capita rise in kind. In effect, as societal functionality gets more technical, waste generation rates increase and humans become less resource efficient and more wasteful.
Not surprisingly, the World Bank (Hoornweg and Bhada -Tata, 2012) has reported that global waste volumes are increasing quickly at faster rates than the rate of urbanization. This is not unexpected if one is inclined to believe that per capita waste generation rates will be similar to a trend that Cook (1971) projected for energy usage per capita. That is, the combined impact of population increases along with upgrades in standard which is increased affluence trump urbanization rates.
Another inconvenient truth as noted by McKinsey (2011) is the potential impact of having 3 billion people suddenly thrust into middle class. This trend alone could massively increase the waste production rates of resources. To illustrate this point using the data from the chart above, let us assume that 1 billion people migrate from the lower middle class of affluence to the high affluence. The chart shows that the low class produces about 0.5 kg waste/capita/day while the average middle class produces about 0.8 kg waste/capita/day. This is a difference of 0.3 kg waste/capita/day. In a scenario having 3 billion people transition to the middle class, world waste generation rates increase by a staggering 2.4 billion kgs/day or almost 1 trillion kgs per year. In other words, increased affluence not only increases per capita resource consumption, but also per capita waste production. As world societies strive to increase standards of living, we must be fully aware of this twofold unfortunate reality. A renewable economy with a recycling system is more than a want, it is a necessity.
Rozich, A. F., Other Inconvenient Truths Beyond Global Warming, Super Nexus Press, West Chester, PA, 2015.
Hoornweg, D. and Perinaz Bhada-Tata, P., What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, World Bank, Washington, D.C., 2012.
Cook, E., “The Flow of Energy in an Industrial Society”, Scientific American, September, 1971.
McKinsey Global Institute, Resource Revolution: Meeting the World’s Energy, Food, and Water Needs, McKinsey and Company, San Francisco, November, 2011.
van Leeuwen, M., et. al., “The agri-food sector in Ukraine: Current situation and market outlook until 2025”, European Commission Joint Research Centre, Seville, Spain, 2012.