The good news is that industrialized nations are recycling more. The bad news is that they are wasting more as well. In most places, recycling can't keep up with higher and higher consumption rates. The problem is that capitalism creates hardened consumers, so even if many buy green, they still buy too much.
The situation is seen as unsustainable by many economists. If everyone in the world consumed like North Americans, for example, we would need the collective resources of five planet Earths, according to a World Wildlife Fund assessment.
"Improving recycling will help, but we need to work out pretty rapidly how to do more with less and how to use resources in general far more efficiently than we are at present," said Ken Peattie of the Cardiff Business School in the United Kingdom.
In a recent report for the UK's Economic and Social Research Council, Peattie and Ben Shaw of the Policy Studies Institute looked at over-consumption and effective ways to reduce it. Peattie's seemingly heretical solution is to use marketing—the Pied Piper of capitalism—to get people to stop buying.
"Marketing doesn’t have to be about promoting the purchasing and consumption of ‘stuff,'" Peattie told LiveScience. It can be used to promote a lifestyle—in this case, a lower-intensity lifestyle that considers the well-being of the planet and generations to come.
Recycling rates continue to climb. The United States currently recycles 32 percent of its garbage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, almost double what was the case 15 years ago.
But the nation is also the most wasteful in the industrialized world, with each American generating on average 4.5 pounds of waste per day.
The best environmental efforts are being undermined by the whole culture of consumption, Peattie said. Although it might appear self-contradictory, marketing may help people kick the consumer habit.
Peattie calls it social marketing, and the idea is to "sell" responsible consumerism using the same tactics that generally entice people to buy a product or service. And, it turns out, there is a market for this.
"Research tells us that people are increasingly drawn to a lower-stress lifestyle involving less work, less money and less consumption," Peattie said.
Must be guilt-free
So how to reach these people? One thing is clear: Guilt messages fail.
"People basically don’t like feeling guilty, and therefore they will frequently look for some reason why a guilt-driven message either doesn’t apply to them or isn’t valid generally," Peattie said.
Peattie has found that environmental doom and gloom elicits several typical responses, like "I don't waste as much as companies do," or "I would recycle, but I've heard they just throw the recyclables in with the rest of the garbage."
A more effective means to generate "buy-in" for reduced consumption, Peattie said, is "to invite people to be part of something positive"—like helping the planet, saving money or guaranteeing a better quality of life for their children.
Carrot and stick
The "carrot" of social marketing will probably need to be supplemented with the "stick" of laws and regulations.
Shaw looked at various policies throughout the world and found that some worked better than others. To decrease waste, he found that there needs to be a variable charging scheme, in which you pay more for putting more garbage on your curb.
Companies, as well, can be held more accountable for the waste their products generate, with regulations that require built-in recycling or reuse capabilities.
“Products should be designed to last, so that they become waste less quickly," Shaw said.
One concern is that governments may be reluctant to enact reforms that will discourage the consumption that drives much of the economy and helps generate tax revenues. The common perception is that if consumption drops, then economic growth (as reflected in the gross domestic product and other indicators) will decrease as well.
But Peattie thinks current growth is unsustainable. In his mind, we can slow the economy down now or wait for an economic collapse from some environmental catastrophe, such as global warming-induced sea-level rise.
"Ultimately governments are going to have to choose between funding [consumption-reducing] activities or much, much better flood defenses," Peattie said.
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