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The relationship between rising affluence and reduction in waste emissions Essay

Rising affluence has been associated with a reduction in the production of waste emissions within the UK. However, the waste emissions associated with the total consumption in the UK have risen. Can both these statements can be true?

There is little doubt that contemporary industrial society is increasingly becoming more consumerist. The story of the twentieth century is the story of large multi-national corporations, some of which have an annual revenue surpassing the GDP of several sovereign countries. Such a situation gives these corporations enormous power over the lives of citizens and the kind of lifestyle choices they can make. One particular aspect of this consumerist society is the mountains of waste that it creates. Due to demands on minimum expected quality of many of the consumer goods, the companies manufacturing them follow elaborate packaging procedures, the disposal of which adds to the total rubbish emissions (Taylor et. al, 2009, chapter 1). The case of United Kingdom is no different and the country is grappling to find solutions to this problem. Coming to the topic of this essay, there seems to be an apparent contradiction. But a closer scrutiny of the topic sentence, as well as a careful reading of the text, resolves how both of these assessments can be true. The rest of this essay will further explicate the topic sentences by way of presenting supporting evidence from the text.

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Firstly, let us consider the assessment that ‘rising affluence has been associated with a reduction in the production of waste emissions within the UK’. Statistics gathered over the last fifty odd years shows that the UK has steadily become a more affluent country. With greater affluence, the nature and complexion of labour and industry has also undergone a change. For example, at the time of the Second World War, the United Kingdom economy was centred on manufacturing, producing many of the ammunition and weaponry in the war against Nazi Germany. The years after the end of the war saw a continuation of the process, this time the labour was utilized for rebuilding the war ravaged country. But in the decades since, a gradual process of neo-liberal globalization took centre stage across the world, making countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom a services-based economy. For example, the UK came to depend on the cars manufactured in countries such as Japan and South Korea, for these nations availed of superior manufacturing technology and cheaper manual labour. (Taylor et. al, 2009, chapter 3)

In the aforementioned example, the waste emissions involved during the manufacturing process would not be counted under UK statistics, but under Japan or South Korea. In other words, the negative externalities associated with the process of car manufacturing would be shifted away from the UK, thereby skewing the data. This case clearly illustrates how rising affluence in the UK is associated with a reduction in the production of waste emissions within the UK. It also means that the environment of the planet as a whole is subject to greater damage than ever before, as the process of globalization shifts nominal environmental costs away from countries such as UK and towards Third World regions. An interesting concept that is of relevance to this point is “negative externalities” (Taylor et. al, 2009, chapter 3). For example, all the large supermarket chains in the UK, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, etc, take advantage of the abundant cheap labour in Third World regions and source their products from there, a practice that seems to “externalize” environmental costs away from the UK. But this is only an illusion, as impoverished environmental conditions in any part of the world will affect all human inhabitants, irrespective of where they live. In addition to this, the emergence of a waste recycling industry has made it possible for affluent societies such as the UK to dump waste emissions in other regions of the world. For example, each year thousands of tonnes of rubbish gets shipped out of the UK in large containers into other parts of the world, where it gets recycled (Taylor et. al, 2009, chapter 3).

Coming to the second point of the topic, as the country became more affluent, the nature and life cycles of consumer goods had also undergone a change. Symbols of rising affluence, such as mobile phones, computers, etc. have short life cycles as older versions are constantly being replaced by newer and improved versions. This means that every time a consumer purchases a new computer or a mobile phone, he/she has to dispose of the old one, which adds to the total waste emissions. The packaging material of the new computer or mobile phone is also a contributor to the waste emission basket. Even food products are contributors to the total waste emissions, as the constraints of modern society, changing gender roles and changing life styles of people have created high demands for packaged, easily prepared foods. Also, the increase in disposable incomes of citizens has shifted the emphasis away from “need-based” consumption to “symbolic” consumption, wherein people purchase products for obscure reasons such as status and image (Taylor et. al, 2009, chapter 2). These factors have further added to the rubbish heaps, which will pose severe environmental challenges for future generations.

There is also a socio-economic aspect to the issue of waste emissions. While it is true that the UK has become more affluent over the last fifty years, the distribution of this wealth has not been uniform. For example, the real incomes for the top ten percent of the population has increased at a faster rate than that of the bottom ninety percent. Considering this, for a significant section of the UK demography there has not been a marked change in their real income levels, although the absolute income has increased. Seen on a per capita basis, the average consumer in the UK today is contributing more rubbish than ever before. But the consumer in the lower socio-economic group ends up paying a greater price for this collective social failure, while the rich consumer pays proportionately less price for his/her consumption. Such imbalances make the task of finding suitable solutions more complex. It also partially explains, why rising affluence has resulted in rising waste emissions when total consumption is measured. (Taylor et. al, 2009, chapter 2)

Finally, coming to the issue of sustainability, there is overwhelming evidence that consumerism as it exists today cannot be sustained forever. Already, the world is 40 percent in ecological debt, which means that the rate of waste emission is greater than the earth’s ability to replenish its resources by 40 percent. This is already in a critical stage and a continuance of the trend can lead to irreparable damage to the environment that we live in. Over the past several years, the onset of the Ecological Debt Day, the day of the year when the total waste emission crosses the replenishment rate, has been steadily advancing (Taylor et. Al, 2009, chapter 3). If drastic measures are not taken to reverse this trend, then we will in all likelihood leave behind a hostile environment for future generations to inherit. This is not only unethical, but also against our own interests. But we as individual consumers can alleviate the magnitude of the problem by taking small steps toward creating a sustainable environment. For example, we as individual consumers can see to it that our cars conform to European standards of pollution. We can use bio-degradable and easily recyclable material such as paper in place of plastic shopping bags. We can write to our elected representatives to pass stringent legislations pertaining to the dumping of toxic effluents. By taking these small steps, we can at least minimize the damage to our environment. (Taylor et. Al, 2009, chapter 3)


Stephanie Taylor, Steve Hinchliffe, John Clarke and Simon Bromley. Making social lives, 2009, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, First Published in 2009.

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