We are used to hearing about energy efficiency, but material efficiency is just as important. More than half of all greenhouse gas emissions come from making material goods - cars, houses, clothes, phones, food and so on. At the same time, many of the resources we depend on are becoming scarce and expensive, from rare metals to fertile land and fresh water.
By designing waste out of our economies, we can not only slash greenhouse gas emissions but also:
- cut the damage associated with producing resources, such as air and water pollution from mining and processing metals and minerals, and deforestation and biodiversity loss from producing food, timber and paper;
- reduce resource scarcity impacts including price spikes, supply constraints and conflict;
- avoid generating mountains of waste that has to be sent to landfill, and
- save money for businesses and households.
Just recycling isn't good enough. We need to design waste out right from the start of the production process, by creating products that are durable and upgradeable, and using low-impact materials that are recycled or recyclable. We need to repair and re-use as much as possible. We need to avoid generating waste in the first place, by not buying more than we need and by minimising packaging.
There are very few conflicts, although some low-carbon technologies such as solar panels use a range of rare metals such as gallium and indium. The key solution is to maximise recycling and re-use of the equipment.
To get rid of waste, we need to change the economic framework that encourages a throwaway society. We need to ensure that the market prices of material goods reflect their full environmental costs, and we need to end perverse government subsidies that encourage extraction of more raw materials.
One option is to use the revenue from a carbon tax to reduce labour taxes such as national insurance contributions. This should make material goods more expensive but labour cheaper, so that it is cheaper to pay a craftsman to repair an item than to throw it away and buy a new one. In an era where material resources are scarce but unemployment is a serious problem, it makes sense to subsidise employment rather than to subsidise material prices.
Links to other co-benefits pages
- Cleaner air: reduced pollution from fossil fuels
- Sustainable forests, food and farming
- Safer and more secure energy supplies
- Stronger economy: long-term stability and prosperity
- Health and well-being: benefits of a low-carbon lifestyle
- Summary table
- Comparison of policy options
- A tale of two strategies
- Policy recommendations