Refuse, reuse, repair and share – cutting the carbon footprint of stuff

Published in Clean Slate, the membership magazine for the Centre for Alternative Technology. Summer 2020. Reproduced here with minor modifications (hyperlinks etc).

How can we cut emissions from the things we buy? In the second in a two-part series, Judith Thornton compares the effectiveness of different approaches.

In the last article (reproduced here if you missed it), I tried to come to some conclusions regarding the total carbon impact of ‘stuff’. The end point was that the emissions within UK boundaries were around 1.1 tonnes CO2e per person per year across public and private sectors. We should then add to this around 1.5 tonnes CO2e per person to account for the emissions associated with goods imported into the UK. This is at best, a very approximate answer, and it’s also one of the reasons why I have neglected to provide a clear definition of what I mean by ‘stuff’; I have no wish to imply any precision. But it’s a starting point for those of us who have worked to decarbonise the biggest impacts in our lives (generally home heating, transport and diet) and are wondering where to look for other reductions.

Reducing the impact of stuff – have less stuff

Hopefully this solution is obvious. The fewer material possessions we purchase, the less we contribute to the environmental problems that stem from manufacturing stuff. So why is that we find this so difficult to achieve in practice? It’s easy to blame our surroundings; we live in a society where material wealth is valued and is widely held as an aspiration. But psychologists regard the phenomenon as deeper than that; possession is rooted in our sense of self-identity as well as the fact that our conspicuous consumption acts as a signal to others.

Less stuff means less stuff – beware the eco-bling

Marketers are well aware that saying that a product is ‘environmentally friendly’ is a great way of boosting sales. So how can we cut through the greenwash? A couple of simple tips. Firstly, the difference in environmental impact between product A and product B is almost always going to be smaller than the simple act of not having the product at all. I surely can’t be the only one who has far more reusable shopping bags than I need? Secondly, who is it that is telling you that a product is environmentally friendly and whose interests are served by you owning their product? Buying nothing is in most cases a much simpler option than choosing between items of stuff that we didn’t really need.

We certainly need some kind of societal shift to combat the desirability of ownership. We are embedded in a consumer society, in which governments and companies require us to continue buying stuff in order to maintain the system. Our response needs to be partly about possessions per se, but also about replacement rates and turnover. This means that we should act to avoid buying stuff wherever we can, keep items in use rather than replacing them, but we also need to be kind to ourselves and accept that we are at least partly constrained by the systems we are surrounded by.

A subset of eco-bling is products that are supposed to reduce our consumption of other products. Reusable coffee cups are an obvious example (my first ever blog post was about this, here). What’s interesting about these is that they are designed to incentivise you to buy your coffee on the go rather than make it at home. Whereas 10 years ago we’d have had insulated flasks that gave us the freedom to choose when we consumed a hot drink, we are now being duped in to buying reusable cups that limit our options (e.g. they’re not insulated, and the lids aren’t watertight). There certainly are instances where we can buy a product that decreases our environmental impact or use of resources (e.g. rechargeable batteries, low energy household appliances) but it’s probably the exception rather than the rule and is certainly more complicated than simply not buying an object.  

Thermal Mug - Gloss Blue
Insulated travel mugs are far more practical than reusable coffe cups…
Bamboo Coffee Cup - Reusable Bamboo Coffee Cup for Sale | Nisbets
These cups aren’t leak proof and don’t keep your drink warm. So what if it’s made from bamboo if it’s a useless product in the first place?!

Why own when you can share?

If we consider products in terms of what functions or services they give us it can help us re-assess whether we need to own the product or not. We already have formal and informal systems of sharing things that we only use sporadically (the public library being an obvious example), but it is worth assessing whether you can expand on these systems, encourage others to join them or improve their functioning. Technologies such as online booking diaries for facilities, or schemes such as freecycle can help. In a similar vein, repair cafes and reclamation projects are becoming more widespread, in order to keep items in usable condition for longer. On a wider scale, paying for a service rather than a physical asset has been touted as a means by which we could incentivise companies to provide high quality assets, or at least de-risk a decision for the individual; lease models for electric vehicle batteries are a good example of this.

Reducing disposability

A related issue is designing products for longevity and reducing the overall level of disposability of products. The EU is beginning to legislate in the area of planned obsolescence; the phenomenon of companies deliberately producing products that will fail. Whilst this is undoubtedly a good thing, we should bear in mind that everything has an optimum lifespan, and excessive longevity is not necessarily a virtue; there is little point in designing a mobile phone that lasts 20 years, because we could reasonably expect that technological advances would render it defunct over a shorter time period. The same is true of appliances for which we expect energy efficiency to improve; if the energy in use phase of a product life cycle is high compared to the impacts of manufacture, then replacing an old machine with a more efficient or better designed one makes sense. Kettles are a good example of this; 80% of the life cycle impacts of an electric kettle are in the use phase (i.e. boiling the water), and we routinely boil far more water than is needed. Many kettles are poorly designed in this regard, with visual fill indicators that are difficult to see. If this is true of your kettle, either develop a way of filling it by the correct amount (e.g. leaving a mug next to it and filling from that), or buy a new kettle. 

Second hand stuff – better than new, but by how much?

When you do need stuff, buying second hand intuitively seems like a good environmental option. Taken at a simple level, this is undoubtedly true. However, calculating just how much better this is for the environment requires us to know the counterfactual scenario. If we would otherwise buy the same object brand new and the secondhand object was otherwise thrown away then the maths are relatively simple (we have a case of ‘perfect substitution’). However, this assumption is unlikely to ever be true. In many situations, purchasing a second hand object only partially displaces the production of a new one. For example, if you buy a pair of shoes from a second hand shop, does this stop you buying new shoes, or do you simply own more shoes? And what of the person who would have come into the shop an hour later and bought those same second hand shoes, might they now go out and buy new ones? The level of displacement varies hugely between objects of different types. Whilst buying second hand shoes may just result in you owning more shoes, it’s highly likely that if you buy a second hand washing machine it is instead of a new one. As is usually the case, scientists have studied the complexities of this idea, and a method for determining the environmental savings from second hand goods has been developed by WRAP, available here.

used shoes
Does buying shoes you don’t need displace the production of new shoes? (This supplier of second hand shoes from China, Comfeel, are offering 300 tonnes of shoes per month).

Decarbonising production, and beyond…

In a world where catastrophic climate change is our major concern, the decarbonisation of our energy sources is paramount. Consequently at the moment, a very large part of the environmental impact of our stuff relates to the energy required to produce it. But once we live in a society where our energy is supplied from renewables, we will still have a problem, both in terms of the physical resources used to produce our stuff, and the environmental impacts of disposing of it. This is particularly the case with a growing population and increasing affluence; the planet cannot support more rich people. One of the proposed solutions is the Circular Economy. In a Circular Economy, objects are either designed in such a way that their components can be reused in new objects when they reach end of life, or are produced using renewable materials. Whilst the concept makes intuitive sense, it is largely being promoted by companies and institutions invested in selling us stuff, and seems to be descending into innumerate greenwash. I’ve written a blog post on the Circular Economy here.

Physical resource flows – what and how much?

A good way of looking at the environmental impact of our stuff is to consider overall physical resource flows. This goes beyond the idea of completely decarbonised energy systems, and takes into account the physical limits of the planet. The graph below looks at global materials extraction from the environment (i.e. the starting point for resource flows) over time; you can see that our resource demand has increased significantly since 1900.  Clearly, world population has also increased over the same time period, and to account of this, the authors present the data as our ‘metabolic rate’ (tonnes of material extraction per person per year). [Full paper available here].



Global materials extraction from the environment over time. Source: Krausmann, et al. (2009). ‘Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century’. Ecological Economics. Available here.

In this analysis resource flows are divided into four categories: Biomass (edible crops, roughage (animal feeds), wood). Fossil energy (coal, oil, natural gas). Ores and industrial minerals (80% of the mass of this is tailings (the waste material left over after mineral extraction), with the major extractions being iron (95%), and most of the remainder being copper and aluminium). Construction minerals (cement, sand, gravel).

We can see that our per capita use of biomass resources has remained relatively constant. Our use of fossil energy and ores and industrial minerals has gone up a little, but the largest increase has been in per capita use of construction minerals.

Reasons for optimism?

The interesting thing about this analysis is that it suggests that despite a century of industrialisation, rising living standards and increased material goods, resource consumption across three of the four categories has not increased by nearly as much as one might have expected. We do seem to be uncoupling resource use from wellbeing, and the efficiency with which the resources have been used has to an extent kept up with increases in demand.

When we look at the total per capita resource flows since 1900, the big increase is in construction minerals. Since these are relatively easy to reuse and recycle without a deterioration in quality, perhaps we can imagine a future where our extraction of construction minerals (cement, sand and gravel) from the environment goes down.

In the meantime, we are well aware of the impacts of extracting fossil energy carriers from the environment, and are taking active steps to reduce them. The extraction of biomass resources from the environment is also an area in which we have a relatively good understanding of constraints and options and the rate at which we can extract without conflicting with renewability. In the case of ores and industrial minerals, the part that we’re interested in is the metals, which are relatively straightforward to recycle so we can imagine systems in place for this. Does this mean that the problem of resource extraction is solvable?

Perhaps, but not yet…

There are clear limitations with this type of material flow analysis. The tonnage of materials in each category does not relate to the ease with which we can extract them from the environment, our requirements for small quantities of key resources such as precious metals are not well represented, and the analysis is only the supply-side of the equation, it says nothing about the impacts of anything that we return to the environment. Per capita consumption tells us nothing about absolute physical limits, and neither does it help us much when we consider the scope for substituting one type of resource (e.g. fossil) with another (such as biomass), or say anything about equity and who gets to use a resource. 

Final thoughts

The difficulty with the environmental impact of ‘stuff’ is that it is made up of so many individual items that it is difficult to know where to start when trying to reduce its impact in our own lives. It is also the case that most of it is beyond our control; we are not in control of whether or not another country producing manufactured goods is decarbonising its energy system, for example. But in terms of what we definitely can do, the most important thing is to calculate your carbon footprint to determine whether or not ‘stuff’ is a significant part of your impacts. If it is, then you can congratulate yourself; you are in a minority. In terms of what next:

  1. Buy as little as possible.
  2. Avoid owning where you can – share instead
  3. Prolong the life of goods wherever possible – repair and reuse things, or pass them on to other people with those skills
  4. Do not buy ‘eco’ products when you didn’t need a product in the first place  
  5. Buy second hand.  

Postscript: Several posts on this theme are linked to from my Circular Economy page, here.

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