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Zero Waste Day 2024: Zero waste and other ways to encourage sustainable consumption

By Maddie Harris

Global Impacts

To celebrate Zero Waste Day (30 March 2024), our blog post from Senior Ecosystem Analyst Maddie Harris, highlights our work on sustainable consumption, and explores how cutting waste could improve sustainability of consumption, and what other actions could be taken.

 It is estimated that the UK generates over 200 million tonnes of waste in a year (222.2 million tonnes in 2018). All of this waste is linked to inefficiencies in consumption (the use of resources) – whether at the level of the individual consumer, such as the food you scrape into your bin when you’re too full, or that you find at the back of your fridge well-past its use-by date; or earlier on in the supply chain, like the undesirable pieces of food (peel, stems, skin, fat) thrown out in the production process, or the discarding of produce damaged due to weather or disease.

Consumption has been identified as the primary driver of land-use change, which in turn, is the leading cause of biodiversity loss. Without waste, the total amount of material needed to support consumption would be reduced, and therefore the impacts associated with consumption would also be reduced. Ensuring that consumption is sustainable, including through reducing waste, is therefore crucial in addressing nature’s decline, and ensuring that our supply chains are resilient so that we can continue to consume into the future. Zero Waste Day is a great opportunity to get word out about this.

JNCC has done a lot of work aiming to identify and measure the impacts of consumption, for example developing the Global Environmental Impacts of Consumption (GEIC) indicator. This is an essential first step to help us understand how to solve the problem of unsustainable consumption – it’s hard to manage what you don’t measure, or to demonstrate improvement and change if you don’t have measurements.

However, generating evidence is not the only step in the path towards sustainable solutions. Being able to interpret the evidence and communicate the results are also key to this process. By bringing these three strands together – measuring, interpreting and communicating the impacts of consumption – we hope to contribute to creating a world where decision makers have evidence and strategies at their fingertips to ensure that consumption is within the limits of what the planet can sustainably support.

For example, one of our recent reports (JNCC Report 747: Policy interventions to encourage sustainable consumption) aimed to develop an evidence base around the kind of actions that could be taken by governments to improve the sustainability of consumption, and where possible, an understanding of how well each different action works. Reducing waste, by promoting a circular economy and establishing sustainable disposal systems, was one of fifteen potential intervention types that were identified in the report.

Other interventions included education and capacity building (e.g. training people in cooking sustainable recipes), taxes and subsidies (similar to the plastic bag tax), sustainable public procurement (e.g. sustainable rules or guidelines for school meals, civil service office equipment, products used by the NHS and other public sector spending), and controls on advertising.

The report is designed to be an information source for decision makers, outlining the different options available and their relative effectiveness. It concluded that there is significant crossover and synergy between different policy options available, highlighting that no single intervention could achieve as much of a change on its own as when implemented in conjunction with others. A suite of different policy interventions alongside engagement with stakeholders across the supply chain, from individual consumers to producers, businesses, traders, retailers, investors, and governments is therefore likely to be most effective at increasing the sustainability of consumption.

Our sustainable consumption team at JNCC plan to continue research in this area, as well as continuing to maintain, expand and improve on the GEIC indicator. In the coming months, be sure to look out for reports which explore circular economy interventions, the links between sustainable consumption and resource security, and ‘sustainable limits’ related to consumption and its associated impacts.

To find out more about our work, visit our Environmental impacts of UK supply chains webpage.


Supermarket shelves image courtesy of pixabay.

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