Rising affluence is associated with both more waste and greater recycling in a consumer society: an overview.

To help outline the view that in a consumer society, rising affluence is associated with both more waste and greater recycling, it is important to understand the concepts that are going to be used. Oxford Dictionary defines a ‘consumer society‘ as “a society in which the buying and selling of goods and services is the most important social and economic activity” (Oxford Dictionary, 2015). A consumer society is also often referred to as a ‘throwaway society’; both terms are often derogatory as they are associated with the waste produced and its impact on the environment. What these terms fail to identify is that with more things being thrown away, there are greater efforts at recycling from both the individual and the government. In this essay, drawing from the study material and official reports, the correlation between rising affluence and consumerism, the kind of waste produced and whether it is avoidable, approaches to recycling and the role of government policies with the help of behavioural economics will be discussed, as well as the constraints in the way individuals make their lives around this issue.

Rising affluence in the UK, for example, has been assessed by looking at the data of ‘real disposable income per head in the UK’, provided by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) over the period from 1970 to 2009, as it shows an upward trend in the available disposable income per head (ONS, 2010). It is worth noting that, as author Rajiv Prabhakar concluded from the same data, “rising affluence occurred at the same time as the growth in consumer markets” (Prabhakar, 2014, p. 235). As seen in the “Rise of Mass Consumption”  (The Open University, 2015), after a period of austerity following the end of the Second World War, wages increased while at the same time the ability to make costly purchases on credit repayable by monthly instalments allowed many to buy things previously inaccessible. The manufacturing of labour-saving devices meant that women had more free time for leisure and could consider entering the workforce to add income to the household budget. The increase in living standards meant that the spending habits could shift from necessities to luxuries. Prabhakar (2014) summarised: “As people became richer, they were able to spend more money on products and also upgrade more regularly. This growth in consumption could create more waste, for example with the packaging that surrounds products as well as products becoming obsolete more regularly” (Prabhakar, 2014, p. 235). The modern consumer society is therefore a direct result of rising affluence and the rising level of waste is its consequence.

Data collected on the household waste per person produced per year in the UK also shows an upward trend for the period from 1983 to 2010, where each person produced at least 400 kg per year, peaking to over 520 kg in the period of 2002/03 (ONS, 2010). The Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) reports that 28 million tonnes of household waste are generated in the UK each year, of which 4.9 million tonnes are packaging and 7 million tonnes are food waste (WRAP, 2015). WRAP says that 4.2 million tonnes of food waste are avoidable (WRAP, 2012). Prabhakar (2014) notes that “consumer waste is only part of the total food waste” (Prabhakar, 2014, p. 231), as the figures published by TESCO in 2013 on the food wasted by its customers claim to amount to only 16% (TESCO, 2013); waste is produced by both – individual organisation as well as the individual consumer. When discussing the impact of waste on the environment, the concept of externality is used as it reflects how the cost of waste is not adequately represented in the price of the goods and services. Prabhakar (2014) explains how “an individual’s private decision to produce or consume has wider ‘external’ effects for society” (Prabhakar, 2014, p. 232). As rising waste raises concerns about the idea of environmental sustainability, the responsibility on the issue of dealing with it becomes a social issue leading to the government becoming involved. A report on waste management published by the EU highlights a series of possible factors for the growth of waste, drawing particular attention to the role of rising affluence and advances in technology, but at the core, it notes that “these lifestyle changes may have increased our quality of life, but they also mean we are generating more waste than ever before” (EU, 2012, p. 2).

The data on household waste per person produced per year in the UK supports Prabhakar’s (2014) claim that “although rising affluence is associated with rising waste, it is also associated with greater recycling” (Prabhakar, 2014, p. 237), as it shows that in the period of 2008/09, 38% of the total waste produced was recycled, composted or reused (ONS, 2010).

Furthermore, supermarkets in the UK have also been putting greater effort into reducing waste by preventing it, starting from their supply chain to how produce is sold in their shops: when in 2013 TESCO revealed that 68% of bagged salad was thrown out, it dropped the promotion of bagged salads (Rebecca Smithers, 2013). Overseen by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), in the spring of 2014, the third phase of a voluntary agreement (The Courtauld Commitment) took place between grocery and retail sectors to cut both food and packaging waste in the supply chain (WRAP, 2015). The technology industry is also embracing a more environmentally sustainable model by reducing their carbon footprints and the cost of packaging, as in the case of Apple Inc., which is involved in both production and manufacturing of goods and has been at the forefront of environmental responsibility (Apple, 2015) since 2007, when Steve Jobs revealed details on Apple’s efforts to remove toxics from its products (Todd Woody, 2012).

Reducing waste involves changes in the way that people make their lives” (Prabhakar, 2014, p. 238), author Prabhakar notes, adding further that “even if changes to production are introduced, then it is just as important to […] introduce changes in the individual behaviour” (Prabhakar, 2014, p. 240). This is where behavioural economics and government policy can exert their influence and promote recycling and waste reduction. The EU Landfill Directive of 1999 forced the local government to approach the issue of recycling on how the waste was collected and disposed of, thus promoting recycling to both businesses and consumers (DEFRA, 2004). Yet, there are constraints to some; not everyone is able to participate equally in remaking their lives in a consumer society by recycling properly or reducing their carbon footprints. When discussing constraints in the ability of society to recycle properly, Prabhakar states that “poverty is an obvious constraint on individual behaviour” (Prabhakar, 2014, p. 252) as it can manifest itself in lack of time as well as financial resources, which in turn puts a constraint on how people handle waste management in their household or waste reduction when shopping for groceries.

To summarise, there is evidence to support the claim that rising affluence leads to increasing levels of waste, but there is also evidence of a greater effort at recycling from individuals; in the effort towards recycling, government policies, with the help of behavioural economics, are helping to overcome poverty as a major constraint on the behaviour of individuals. The point of this essay has been to broadly review: the roots and the role of consumerism and its ties to rising affluence in the UK; who produces, what kinds of waste are produced (from the average household waste produced per person per year to the waste produced by the individual organisation) and the factors contributing to its growth; what makes an argument for greater effort at recycling, who is involved and who can’t; and the role of government policies and influence exerted with the help of behavioural economics in recycling, waste reduction and better waste management.


Definition of a ‘consumer society‘ from The Oxford Dictionary [online]. Available at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/consumer-society (Accessed 30 April 2015).

Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2010) Social Trends 40 [Online]. Available at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/social-trends-rd/social-trends/social-trends-40/social-trends-40—environment-chapter.pdf (Accessed on 30 April 2015).

Rajiv Prabhakar (2014) ‘Throwaway Society? Waste and Recycling’ in Allen, J. and Blakeley, G. (eds) Understanding Social Lives, Part 1, Milton Keynes: The Open University.

The Open University (2015) ‘Rise of Mass Consumption’ [Video], DD102 Introducing the Social Sciences. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=620300&section=5 (Accessed 30 April 2015).

European Union (EU) (2012) ‘Being Wise with Waste: The EU’s Approach to Waste Management’ [Online]. Available at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/pdf/WASTE%20BROCHURE.pdf (Accessed 30 April 2015).

The Waste and Recycling Action Program (WRAP) (2012) Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK report [Online]. Available at http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/hhfdw-2012-main.pdf.pdf (Accessed 30 April 2015).

Rebecca Smithers (2013) ‘UK Supermarkets Face Mounting Pressure to Cut Food Waste‘, The Guardian [Online]. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/oct/21/uk-supermarkets-pressure-cut-food-waste (Accessed 30 April 2015).

The Waste and Recycling Action Program (WRAP) (2015) Carrier Bags: Reducing Their Use [Online]. Available at http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/carrier-bags-reducing-their-use (Accessed on 30 April 2015).

The Waste and Recycling Action Program (WRAP) (2015) The Courtauld Commitment [Online]. Available at http://www.wrap.org.uk/node/14507 (accessed 30 April 2015).

Todd Woody (2012) ‘How Apple Went from Environmental Laggard to Leader’, Forbes [Online]. Available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/toddwoody/2012/02/22/how-apple-went-from-environmental-laggard-to-leader/ (Accessed 30 April 2015).

Environmental Responsibility‘ published by Apple inc. online [Online]. Available at https://www.apple.com/environment/ (Accessed on 30 April 2015).

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) (2004) ‘Impact of EU Landfill Directive and National Strategies on UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions’ [Online]. Available at http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=GA01030_1510_FRP.pdf (Accessed on 30 April 2015).

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