Are the rich more wasteful?

Would you imagine that with generally better access to education and the ability to pay more if required for green products and clean energy, the rich would be less wasteful than the poor?

It’s not so, not at an international or, seemingly,  a local level.

This thought came to me recently as I walked past piles of waste on the street the other day. In Sydney, local authorities will pick up all sorts of trash in collections two or three times per year. This is stuff like old furniture, beds, electronic goods, cooking equipment and so on that can’t go into the daily trash. The suburb I was walking through was pretty blue collar, and the trash on the street was absolute broken down junk, no longer of any value whatsoever to anybody.

No surprise, that’s what you expect of junk, right? Wrong. I’m fortunate enough to live in a very wealthy suburb, and when we have a trash day, there’s a very different picture. The streetside looks like a store..perfectly good furniture. working TVs and stereos, kids bikes, there’s so much good usable stuff that bric-abrac dealers are wise to it and come down with trucks and load up the re-saleable stuff, reducing the average pile by I’d say 40%.  So clearly, on a local level, the rich choose to waste a lot that could be repaired, resold, given to the needy or otherwise usefully redeployed. The fact that the traders do in fact save this stuff from going into groundfill is  nothing to do with the efforts of the rich.

So perhaps its no surprise that the same story is repeated on a global scale. Globally, the wealthiest 10% of people account for 59% of all the consumption. Quite apart from the shocking inequality of these numbers, the other side of all this consumption is of course waste. I can’t find the equivalent numbers on global share of waste production, but the numbers on municipal waste paint the picture, and this story is instructional:

In 1986, a waste-to-energy plant opened in Delhi, India, financed by the Danish International Development Agency at a cost of over $10 million. The plant was expected to generate 3.8 megawatts of electricity from garbage, and its success was to be copied in other Indian cities. However, the plant was a failure, failing to produce energy and after just two years being subsidised about $100,000 a year by the government. Surprisingly, the principal reason was the fact that there wasn’t enough urban waste in Delhi. It turns out that the waste – paper, rags, plastic, etc – in Delhi produces only about half the caloric value of the waste from a Western city.

It doesn’t need Einstein to tell you that all that rich man’s waste has to end up somewhere when we cast it off for newer, shinier models. Where it ends up, obscenely is in the poorest of nations which we pay to accept it, regardless of whatever health implications that might have for the lucky recipients.

If you think about it, the very notion of accumulating wealth in order to waste it by throwing away usable possessions is counter-intuitive and incredibly stupid. And marketing’s role in it is surely its greatest achievement, and crime.

What’s needed is an intelligent reassessment by the wealthy where waste is reduced, and the additional wealth that it frees up is used philanthropically to redress the imbalances in the world. Surely the wealthy are smart enough for such a reassessment?

Whoever it was that told a certain Mr Gillette (of razor fame)  that to get rich he should invent something that people would use only once and then throw away, helped put us all on a one way journey to extinction.


One Response to “Are the rich more wasteful?”

  1. Here’s the comment I’d love to get: “Shopping today is often done for ‘mood enhancement’—even though the benefits of retail therapy are short lived and more costly than Prozac. This means that waste is not a troublesome by-product of what we consume but a consequence of the strategies we adopt to find meaning in our lives through shopping. Instead of finding more effective ways to fill the inner void, we end up digging and filling holes in the landscape. Dealing
    with ever-growing piles of waste is not so much an engineering problem: it is a psychological and social one…Sometimes I think we should build railway lines running directly from the shopping centres to the landfill sites and cut out the middle man. Having satisfied our need to spend, we could just deposit our purchases in bins at the doors of the shopping centres on
    the way out. But of course, then the game would be up and we could pretend no more”.

    Clive Hamilton, Executive Director of The Australia Institute, in a 2005 speech to the 6th Asia Pacific Roundtable for Sustainable Consumption and Production

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