by Marena Gibson
1. What is consumption?
Consumption is the process of using something up; the word carries a connotation of depletion/destruction of what is being consumed. Think about it in terms of natural resources: When we use gas to drive a car, we are consuming fossil fuels. When we buy cell phones, we are consuming a product that contains precious metals (and plastic, which is manufactured from oil).
In a post on waste, I discussed human waste output, or production. Consumption and production go hand-in-hand. If a water-bottling company produces plastic bottles, when we buy and drink them we are consuming them. In turn, if we consume a plastic bottle of water, we then produce a plastic bottle. Consumption, like production, is a key consideration of sustainability.
For this post, I will be using the following definitions:
Consumer: a person who purchases goods and services for personal use.
Producer: a person, country, or organization that makes/supplies goods for profit/consumption.
So why is consumption so important? Consider the following:
The U.S. only makes up about 4.5% of the world population (US Census Bureau), yet accounts for the following percentages of world consumption per year:
Again, we’re only 4.5% of the population.
2. Secondary costs of consumption
Have you ever heard of the term “true cost” or “true price”? Instead of the literal price you pay for a good, e.g. $3.00 for a hamburger, the true cost accounts for the resources that are used to make that product. For now, let’s consider the true cost of something in terms of the resources used to produce it, like water.
A classic example is the $3 hamburger. What is needed to make 1lb. of beef? A cow. Simple, right? I never thought beyond that point.
But what was used to “make” the cow? What resources were required to raise a cow for slaughter? What did the cow consume*? Start by thinking of what an animal’s basic needs are: Food, water, and a place to live.
*Keep in mind, estimates vary with every study. I search for averages, and studies with reliable methods and researchers. For example, resource usage estimates from studies sponsored by the industry itself are low; studies sponsored by opposing groups are high. The real answer will be somewhere in the middle, conducted by an independent researcher.
To produce only 1lb. of beef, 2,500 gallons of water are required. Why so much? Because of:
It adds up. Earlier we learned that in 2016, Americans consumed 25 billion pounds of beef. 25 billions pounds multiplied by 2,500 gallons of water = 62,500,000,000,000 (62.5 trillion) gallons of water, in only one year.
Here’s a few more products and their hidden water costs:
3. Effects of overconsumption
Now we know how much we consume. We know depleting natural resources is bad, but what are the impacts we don’t think about?
Here’s one we should all be concerned about: Loss of biodiversity.
Humans have led to extinction and endangerment of plant and animal species, both directly (hunting) and indirectly (destruction of habitat). Every species that goes extinct is another reduction of biodiversity, and makes their ecosystem a little less stable. Ecosystems are like a web, held together by interactions and influences: species effects on other species, species effects on habitat, and habitat effects on species. If one piece of web is lost, it impacts many around it, and if too many pieces are lost, it can no longer be sustained, and collapses.
What happens when an ecosystem collapses? Instead of isolated cases, it’s more like a domino effect. Let’s follow overfishing:
Overfishing, even just of only a few species, can cause
And on, and on. It’s dizzying, really. But as depressing as this all may seem, don’t despair! Because when we work together towards sustainability, we can…
4. Minimize, mitigate, and reverse the negative effects of production and consumption
Consumption and production are intrinsic parts of life. It’s a matter of what/how we are consuming and producing that makes all the difference. Are we being sustainable and responsible? Do we continually work to minimize negative consumption and production, and maximize the positive kind? Let’s change the mood, and see how we can consume and produce for good.
I will always, always, come back to food waste (read my previous blog that covers food waste here). Why? Because food consumption is universal, and food waste has become all but inevitable. But by combatting our production of it, we save the environment, and save our money (if you’ve already read my post, forgive me for repeating myself).
Step 1: Minimize food waste
Step 2: Put food waste to good use
Keep the cycle going. Produce less waste, and use the remaining waste to produce something great!
Less than 1% of the water on Earth is available for human consumption. The rest is salt water, or permanently frozen. As the population grows, conserving this resource will become more and more important.
Address these issues, and then, save money:
If the average NJ resident uses 70-150 gallons of water per day, or 25,550-54,750 per year, then something as simple as fixing a leak can significantly decrease your bill.
Just food and water waste can have an impact, so it boils down to assessing your life as an individual: What is essential for YOU? What can YOU do without? What changes are YOU realistically capable of making in your life? It takes a village, and we must all work together to address the issues of consumption and production. Remember: one person, making one choice, CAN make a difference. It all starts with baby steps. If you’ve never gone running before, you can’t expect to finish a marathon. But today, you can make an effort to remember to turn off the tap while you brush your teeth. Then you’re already on your way.
Spotlight: Is your clothing polluting the ocean?
There is a surprising link between your clothing and the ocean: Every time you run them through a washing machine, they likely shed microfibers: tiny pieces of thread that come off your clothing. They eventually make their way into the ocean. And here we have the link: microfibers make up 85% of man-made pollution that ends up on shorelines.
The biggest problem is that microfibers can bioaccumulate: if small marine species accidentally consumes these threads, a certain percentage will stay in their bodies. The larger species that preys on the smaller will eat several of them, and have an even higher concentration of microfibers in their bodies. It travels up the food chain, with the largest predators ending up with the highest concentration of microfibers poisoning their bodies. And who’s at the top of the food chain? Who’s eating these big fish? The clothes on your back have the potential to pollute your own food.
Microfiber is commonly used in athletic wear and outdoor clothing. Outdoor companies, in an effort to be sustainable, have started producing their clothing with Polartec, a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles. Do you see where this is going? Now, those plastic bottles have been processed into a bazillion little microfibers into clothing that will be washed, and this clothing will likely cause more harm and pollution than the initial plastic bottles it was made from. Unfortunately, good intentions can lead to bad consequences.
How do we address this problem? We are legally required to wear clothing, so ditching it altogether isn’t an option. But we can wash our clothes a little less frequently, and only wear/purchase clothing that isn’t created from microfibers. It might put more effort on your part to figure out what is and isn’t made of microfiber-containing material, but stopping the problem at its source prevents those threads from entering the food chain altogether. There are also products available like washing machine filters, and wash bags for microfiber clothing to contain the threads from entering the water system.
Think of your new knowledge of microfiber pollution as an opportunity to begin your personal road to sustainability. Here’s a challenge: For the next item of clothing you buy, act as a conscious consumer and purchase something that isn’t made of microfiber. Bonus points if you purchase it from a company that is currently making an effort to combat the issue of microfiber clothing! Use your power as a consumer for good, and consume a responsible, sustainable product from a responsible, sustainable producer.
Borgstrom,George. "Impacts on demand for and quality of land and water."
American Association for the Advancement of Science (1981).
Unesco IHE Institution for Water Education
Albuquerque Bernadillo County Water Utility Authority
Environmental Protection Agency
US Energy Information Association
American chemistry council
New Jersey Board of Public Utilities
California Department of Water Resources
Bruce et. al, 2017. Report: Microfiber pollution and the apparel industry.
Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks.
The Economic Times
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