Plastic waste pollution: bad resource efficiency

The WWF published its latest Living Planet Report last Tuesday. It’s not just a thorough analysis of global data on biodiversity; it’s also a landmark in how leaders connect abstract, data-heavy sustainability concepts with the drivers that really motivate people. An important theme is that human wellbeing, economic performance, and social development all depend on “the web of life that sustains us all”. It says responding to this is our generation’s greatest challenge and opportunity. But there’s one big problem: the way we use resources is wrong. So how do we improve resource efficiency?

Consumer demand is an increasing burden on natural resources and habitats – and global population will approach 10 billion by 2050. International development and increased spending is bringing large cars, plentiful diets, and an abundance of waste.

Rising consumption globally is more than the planet can bear, and is straining material and natural resources. That threatens our food, biodiversity, materials, energy, soil, water, and atmosphere. There is a growing scarcity of key materials, such as copper and lead. It’s pushing procurement prices up and limiting their availability in many nations.

Overall, humanity’s Ecological Footprint has almost doubled since 1969, largely attributable to a carbon footprint which has quadrupled since the 1950s. Not everybody has an equal footprint and there are enormous differences between countries, particularly those at different economic and developmental levels. Humanity’s Footprint is around 20.1 billion global hectares (gha), or 2.8 gha per person. However, the Earth’s biocapacity is only 12.2 billion gha, or 1.7 gha per person. That’s an ecological overshoot: people use the equivalent of 1.7 planets to support their activities.

What does overshoot mean?

How can humanity be using the capacity of 1.7 Earths, when there is only one? Just as you can withdraw more money from a bank account than the interest the account generates, it’s possible to harvest renewable resources faster than they regenerate. Agricultural operations destroy tropical forests faster than newly planted forests elsewhere can grow. The global fishing industry and uncontrolled pollution are damaging aquatic ecosystems without allowing enough time for their regeneration. This can only continue for a limited time, as the resources become depleted. Similarly, CO2 emissions exceed the rate at which ecosystems can absorb them, and cannot be fully sequestered on Earth. Ultimately the overuse of resources will lead to a shortage of materials. Unless we can improve resource efficiency, we’ll need to find alternatives or reduce consumption.

Resource Efficiency as a Solution

Businesses of all sizes should consider resource efficiency across their operations. Ultimately, the demand for goods drives the global market that we are all part of. So, businesses should consider not only the goods they consume, but also the products that they produce for consumption.

Mapping major resources can be tough, but it’s an empowering start. Once identified there can be a move towards one of three options:

  1. finding alternatives with a lower impact or ideally a renewable source;
  2. being efficient with the resource which will see marginal gains; or
  3. a total reduction in consumption.

Drivers pushing businesses to do this with carbon and energy already exist. Companies are switching to alternative providers, setting efficiency targets in line with their growth, or they are reducing outright. In many cases, all three can be approached simultaneously. That’s encouraging, but, as the WWF report highlights, there is still a fundamental issue with the way we use resources. Businesses need to consider more and more what they consume and how they can make changes.

Acclaro Avisory runs the Sustainable Facilities Management Index. It considers resource use among a set of ESG criteria to set a sustainability standard for outsourced facilities management.

On Thursday 8 November, the Sustainable Facilities Management Index will launch its 2018 results at the RICS building in Parliament Square. We’ll be hosting speakers from RICS – and we’ll provide a free breakfast. Join us for the free event.