Resource use has more than tripled over the last half century, while the proportion of the total which has recycled has fallen slightly over recent years.
“The Circularity Gap Report 2020”, published in January 2020, found that the total quantity of resources entering the global economy each year surpassed 100bn tonnes each year in 2017.
2017 is the most recent year for which data is available, one tonne is one thousand kilograms, and one billion is one thousand million. By way of comparison, to fit 100bn tonnes of water into a tank with an area the size of a professional football pitch, the tank would have to be over 14 thousand kilometres deep: a greater distance than the diameter of the earth.
Half of this input was “minerals”, non-metallic, inorganic things like stone, clay, sand; one quarter “biomass”, from forestry and farming; 15% fossil fuels; and 10% (metallic) “ores”. Around two fifths went to housing, one fifth to food, roughly one tenth each to services, healthcare, and transport, and the rest to consumer goods and communication.
Just under one third of this goes into longer term infrastructure, and a similar amount, around 32%, into refuse; the rest lost to the environment or in emissions. Overall just 8.6% is recycled, or around 27% of the refuse; around 91% is “extracted”.
The report states that “The negative trend overall can be explained by three related, underlying trends: high rates of extraction; ongoing stock build-up; plus, low levels of end-of-use processing and cycling.” By “stock” it means long-lasting infrastructure, buildings, etc. There are several problems for an economy premised on such high levels of extraction and such low levels of recycling. The report does not highlight in detail what these are and which are the most severe threats, but I sketch some below.
Emissions have various direct environmental impacts, most notably global warming. Other pollution into the environment, and disposal of refuse, have cause many additional problems. Extraction such as mining is often destructive of local environments, can deplete resources, and is particularly resource intensive.
The school-taught mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” remains to first approximation a good approach (in the global north) when aimed for on a society wide level.
Infrastructure, food, goods, services, should be designed to be constructed and to function as efficiently as possible, with minimum waste or energy use.
An economy structured around collectivisation and sharing can radically reduce the quantities necessary to fulfil individuals’ needs and desires. Infrastructure and goods should be designed to be durable, and last as long as possible; and be modular so that they can be repaired or upgraded with little waste.
Additionally, production should be planned to make recycling and composting easy and effective, at end-of-life.
A socialist society would broadly aim to do these things anyway, to reduce human labour expended. The core drives of a capitalist society — ever-increasing profit, through extracting surplus labour embodied in commodities — cuts in the opposite direction. To move towards a more rational, ecological society, we must fight for socialism.
Short of that, we can make serious gains. We should fight to socialise industries, taking them into democratic control and public ownership, to run them ecologically for public good, not private profit. We should campaign to expand the welfare state, to strengthen environmental legislation, to the same ends.
Next climate strike 14 February
The next youth climate strike will be held on Friday 14 February. School students and young people from over 50 locations across the UK will walk out and protest at the government’s continued inaction on climate change.
As Workers’ Liberty voted for at our conference:
“We work for real union support for Climate Strikes: for grass-roots union activists to bring delegations of workers to climate protests, or to hold their own.”
“We want youth climate strikers to work with workplace activists to build a clear programme and mass workplace participation. We support youth strikers, and agitate for this perspective, in local areas and campuses; through the Student Left Network; and through activists in the leadership of UKSCN.”
Readers of Solidarity should use 14 February as a opportunity to build such support. Get in contact with your local youth strikers, offer support, invite them to your union and Labour party meetings to talk. Plan something at work: even simply photo-shoots or videos with colleagues can be important steps.