From mine to waste, and beyond

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Article Published 04 Jun 2012 Last modified 17 Mar 2023
8 min read
Photo: © EEA/Ace&Ace
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Almost everything we consume and produce has an impact on our environment. When faced with daily choices to buy certain goods or services, we often do not think about their ‘footprints’ on the environment. Their shelf prices hardly ever reflect their true costs. But there are many things we can do to green our consumption and production.

In May 2011, the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York was packed with crowds coming from all over the world to buy Apple’s latest iPad2. Whatever was shipped in that day was sold within hours. The Fifth Avenue store was one of the lucky ones. Many Apple stores around the world could only take orders and deliver weeks later. 

The delay was not caused by deficient business planning or an exceedingly successful marketing campaign. It was triggered by a series of disasters on the other side of the planet. Five of the iPad2’s main components were manufactured in Japan at the time of the earthquake of 11 March 2011. The production of some of these components could easily be shifted to South Korea or the United States of America, but not the digital compass. One of its key manufacturers was located within 20 km of the Fukushima reactors and had to close its plant. 

Resource flows to feed production lines

In our interconnected world, the journey of many electronic devices starts at a mine, mostly located in a developing country, and a product development centre, most often in a developed country. Today, the production of laptops, mobile phones, cars and digital cameras require rare earths, such as neodymium, lanthanum and cerium. Although many countries have unexploited reserves, extraction is costly, and in some cases toxic and radioactive. 

After extraction, material resources are generally transported to a processing location and turned into various product components, which are in turn shipped to other locations for assembling. By the time we buy our device, its various components have already travelled around the world, and at every stage of their journey, they have left their footprint on the environment.

The same goes for the food on our tables, the furniture in our living rooms and the fuel in our cars. Most materials and resources are extracted, processed into a consumable product or service and transported to our mainly urban homes. The provision of freshwater to European households, for example, does not only mean extracting the quantity used from a water body. To make the water ready for consumption, we need infrastructure and energy to transport, store, treat and heat it. Once ‘used’, we need yet more infrastructure and energy to dispose of it. 

Copyright: ThinkstockTo make one standard cup of coffee in the Netherlands we need about 140 litres of water. By far the largest part is needed to grow the coffee plant. Even more strikingly, to produce one kilogramme of beef, we need on average 15 400 litres of water.
Source: Water Footprint Network.

All up for consumption

Some of the environmental impacts of our consumption levels and patterns are not visible at first. Generating the electricity to charge mobile phones and freeze our food releases carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, which in turn contribute to climate change. Transport and industrial facilities release air pollutants such as sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides, which are harmful to human health. 

Millions heading south in the summer put additional strains on their holiday destinations. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions from their trip, their need for accommodation boosts the construction sector’s demand for material resources and energy. The seasonal increase in the local population demands extra water extraction for sanitation and leisure purposes during dry summer months. It also means treating more wastewater, transporting more food to these areas and managing increased volumes of waste.  

Copyright: ShutterstockDespite uncertainty about the exact extent of our environmental impacts, it is clear that current levels and patterns of resource extraction cannot continue. Quite simply, we have limited quantities of vital resources, such as arable land and water. What often starts as a local problem - water scarcity, clearing forests for grazing land or emitting pollutants from an industrial facility - can easily become a global and systemic problem, which affects us all. 

One indicator of resource consumption is the ecological footprint, developed by the Global Footprint Network. It estimates countries’ consumption in terms of land use worldwide, including indirect land use to produce goods and absorb CO2 emissions. According to this methodology, in 2007 each human had a footprint corresponding to 2.7 global hectares. 

That far exceeded the 1.8 global hectares available to each of us to sustain our consumption without endangering the productive capacity of the environment (Global Footprint Network, 2012). In developed countries, the difference was even more striking. The EEA countries consumed 4.8 global hectares per resident despite an available ‘biocapacity’ of 2.1 global hectares per person (Global Footprint Network, 2011).

But consumption also means jobs

Our urge and need to consume natural resources presents only one side of the story. Building summer houses in Spain, growing tomatoes in the Netherlands, going on holiday in Thailand also mean jobs, income and ultimately livelihood and a higher quality of life for construction workers, farmers and travel agents. For many people around the world, a higher income means the possibility to meet basic needs. But what constitutes a ‘need’ is not easy to define and varies considerably depending on cultural perceptions and income levels.

To those working in rare earth mines in Inner Mongolia in China, mineral extraction means food security for their families and education for their children. To factory workers in Japan, it can mean not only food and education, but also a few weeks of holiday in Europe. To the crowds flocking the Apple store, for some the final product might constitute a must-have professional tool, and for others an entertainment device. The need for entertainment is also a human need. Its impact on the environment depends on how we meet that need.

Off to the bin

The journey made by our electronic devices, food and tap water does not end in our homes. We keep our television or camera until it is no longer fashionable or compatible with our DVD player. In some EU countries, around one third of the food bought is thrown away. What about the food wasted even before we buy it? Each year, 2.7 billion tonnes of waste is thrown away in the 27 Member States of the European Union.

But where does all this waste go? The short answer would be out of our sight. Some is actually traded - legally and illegally - on global markets. The long answer is much more complicated. It depends on ‘what’ is thrown away and ‘where’. More than one third of the weight of the waste generated in 32 EEA countries consists of construction and demolition waste, strongly linked to economic booms. Another quarter is mining and quarrying waste. Although ultimately all waste is driven by human consumption, only less than one tenth of the total waste weight comes from households. 

Our knowledge of waste is as incomplete as our consumption data but it is clear that we still have a lot to do when it comes to waste management. On average, every EU citizen uses 16–17 tonnes of materials per year and much of this amount is turned into waste sooner or later. This amount would rise to about 40–50 tonnes per person if unused extraction (e.g. mining overburden) and ecological rucksacks (total quantity of the natural material that is disturbed in its natural setting) of imports were taken into account.

Legislation, such as the EU directives on landfill, end-of-life vehicles, batteries, packaging and packaging waste, has helped the European Union divert a larger share of its municipal waste from landfills to incineration and recycling facilities. In 2008, 46 % of the solid waste in the EU was recovered. The rest was sent to incineration (5 %) or landfill (49 %).

Eurostat data on waste

Looking for a new type of gold mine

Electric household appliances, computers, lighting equipment and telephones contain hazardous substances that pose a threat to the environment, but they also include valuable metals. In 2005, the electrical and electronic equipment on the market was estimated to contain 450 000 tonnes of copper and seven tonnes of gold. At the London Metal Exchange, these metals would be roughly worth EUR 2.8 billion and EUR 328 million, respectively, in February 2011. Despite significant variations among European countries, only a small part of such electronic equipment is currently collected and reused or recycled when discarded.

Precious metals ‘discarded as waste’ also have a global dimension. Germany exports some 100 000 used cars every year through Hamburg to outside the European Union, mainly to Africa and the Middle East. In 2005, these cars contained around 6.25 tonnes of platinum group metals. Unlike the EU, most importing countries lack the necessary regulations and capacity to dismantle and recycle used cars.

This represents an economic loss and also leads to additional extraction, causing avoidable damage to the environment, often outside the EU. 

Better municipal waste management offers significant benefits - turning our waste into a valuable resource, avoiding damage to the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing demand for new resources. 

Take the example of paper. In 2006, close to 70 % of paper from municipal solid waste was recycled, equivalent to one fourth of the total consumption of paper products. Increasing the recycling rate to 90 % would allow us to meet more than one third of paper demand with recycled material. That would reduce demand on new resources and lead to less paper waste sent to landfill or incineration, and less greenhouse gas emissions. 

Where can we go from here? 

It is not consumption or production as such that harms the environment. It is the environmental impacts of ‘what we consume’, where and how much, and ‘how we produce’. At the local to global levels, policymakers, businesses and civil society all have to take part in greening the economy.

Technological innovation offers many solutions. Using clean energy and clean transport has a smaller impact on the environment and can meet some of our needs, if not all of them. But technology is not enough. 

Copyright: Gülcin KaradenizOur solution cannot only be about recycling and re using materials so that we extract lower amounts of resources. We cannot avoid consuming resources, but what we can do is consume wisely. We can shift to cleaner alternatives and green our production processes and learn to turn our waste into a resource. 

Better policies, better infrastructure and additional incentives are certainly needed but they can only take us a part of the way. The final leg of the journey depends on consumption choices. Whatever our background and age might be, our day to day decisions to buy certain goods and services have a say in what is produced and how much. Retailers can equally be influential in what is put on the shelves and can propagate the demand for sustainable alternatives up the supply chain. 

A moment of reflection in front of supermarket shelves or the waste bin is perhaps a good start for our personal transition to sustainable living. Can I use the leftovers from yesterday instead of throwing them out? Can I borrow this machine instead of buying it? Where can I recycle my old mobile phone?…

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