By  Hugh Tyrrell

THE  massive burden of waste being generated around the world is topping up landfills, clogging waterways and spilling out into the oceans. South Africa alone produces some 60 million tons of general waste a year, only a tenth of which is recycled (DEA,2013).   Waste management remains largely ‘end of pipe’ focused, rarely challenging the reasons why there is so much of it in the first place.

Its origins go back to the creation of the ‘mass consumer society’ in the 1950s. In the period just before that, during the Second World War (1939-45) people had to be very sparing in the way they lived. All over England, people grew food in their back yards and allotments or so-called ‘victory gardens’.

In the US people were not allowed to buy new cars during the war, as all metals had to go into planes and tanks and other weaponry. Being frugal and re-using everything as much as possible was a patriotic duty and everyone did it. However, once the war was over, factories that had been producing armaments so efficiently stood empty. And soldiers coming back in their thousands needed jobs.

The US government called its economic experts together. Their advice was to retool the factories for mass production of fridges, stoves, appliances, cars and all the other conveniences of daily life we now take for granted.

Marketing and advertising became mainstream business practices during that time, urging people to consume, and consume they did.  The result was a better standard of living for millions but also increasing amounts of waste. A book written then, titled ‘The Waste Makers’ by Vance Packard  (Penguin, 1960)  details the birth of planned obsolescence and many other sales techniques used to urge people to buy a lot more than they may have needed.

The consumer society was therefore not, as many believe, a natural progression of Western society’s development. It was mainly the outcome of economic policy decisions after World War Two promoted by the US and then UK and European governments and readily taken up by commerce and industry.

Since then, banks continue to give loans on good terms to industrial companies to enable them to buy machines to make more and more products which the companies must then sell. Hence the need to keep people buying ‘new’ products and the importance of marketing. Debt-based money creation by banks has provided easy credit for people to consume (while putting many in debt) helping to lead to the ‘throw-away society’ and massive volumes of waste.

This is illustrated in the animated video ‘The Story of Stuff’ by Annie Leonard. Downloaded by over 750 million people, it is a classic, and highly recommended viewing for anyone who wants to know the big-picture issues in simple terms around waste production and prevention.

It also highlights the need to shift economic thinking and systems to a more circular state where waste is either re-used or designed out of the production and consumption process. As this does not seek to oppose but instead reform our industrial economic system, it is gaining acceptance amongst companies worldwide. One of the organisations leading this is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Economists who have championed ‘steady state’ economics include Herman Daly, among others.

The shift to eliminating waste from the consumer cycle is also advocated within the recent UN Sustainable Development Goals (No. 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production).  In South Africa, circular economy thinking and practice is gaining ground too, particularly amongst waste and recycling industry players, as it acts as a positive overarching framework for their operations.

Interested sector leaders are engaging in RSA on the LinkedIn group –  African Circular Economy Network (ACEN)  – with a registered (NPO 195-590 NPO)  which is in its nascent stage and encourages collaboration and discussion on the opportunities and challenges ahead.

On a finite planet like ours, any ideology, programme or practice which encourages ways to optimise resource use and reduce waste is to be welcomed.


This post originally appeared in the Green Economy Journal November 2017 – Pages 24-25 :