Coming to the second point of the topic, as the country became more affluent, the nature and life cycles of consumer goods had also undergone a change. Symbols of rising affluence, such as mobile phones, computers, etc. have short life cycles as older versions are constantly being replaced by newer and improved versions. This means that every time a consumer purchases a new computer or a mobile phone, he/she has to dispose of the old one, which adds to the total waste emissions. The packaging material of the new computer or mobile phone is also a contributor to the waste emission basket. Even food products are contributors to the total waste emissions, as the constraints of modern society, changing gender roles and changing life styles of people have created high demands for packaged, easily prepared foods. Also, the increase in disposable incomes of citizens has shifted the emphasis away from “need-based” consumption to “symbolic” consumption, wherein people purchase products for obscure reasons such as status and image (Taylor et. al, 2009, chapter 2). These factors have further added to the rubbish heaps, which will pose severe environmental challenges for future generations.
There is also a socio-economic aspect to the issue of waste emissions. While it is true that the UK has become more affluent over the last fifty years, the distribution of this wealth has not been uniform. For example, the real incomes for the top ten percent of the population has increased at a faster rate than that of the bottom ninety percent. Considering this, for a significant section of the UK demography there has not been a marked change in their real income levels, although the absolute income has increased. Seen on a per capita basis, the average consumer in the UK today is contributing more rubbish than ever before. But the consumer in the lower socio-economic group ends up paying a greater price for this collective social failure, while the rich consumer pays proportionately less price for his/her consumption. Such imbalances make the task of finding suitable solutions more complex. It also partially explains, why rising affluence has resulted in rising waste emissions when total consumption is measured. (Taylor et. al, 2009, chapter 2)
Finally, coming to the issue of sustainability, there is overwhelming evidence that consumerism as it exists today cannot be sustained forever. Already, the world is 40 percent in ecological debt, which means that the rate of waste emission is greater than the earth’s ability to replenish its resources by 40 percent. This is already in a critical stage and a continuance of the trend can lead to irreparable damage to the environment that we live in. Over the past several years, the onset of the Ecological Debt Day, the day of the year when the total waste emission crosses the replenishment rate, has been steadily advancing (Taylor et. Al, 2009, chapter 3). If drastic measures are not taken to reverse this trend, then we will in all likelihood leave behind a hostile environment for future generations to inherit. This is not only unethical, but also against our own interests. But we as individual consumers can alleviate the magnitude of the problem by taking small steps toward creating a sustainable environment. For example, we as individual consumers can see to it that our cars conform to European standards of pollution. We can use bio-degradable and easily recyclable material such as paper in place of plastic shopping bags. We can write to our elected representatives to pass stringent legislations pertaining to the dumping of toxic effluents. By taking these small steps, we can at least minimize the damage to our environment. (Taylor et. Al, 2009, chapter 3)
Stephanie Taylor, Steve Hinchliffe, John Clarke and Simon Bromley. Making social lives, 2009, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, First Published in 2009.