As we go to press, a new Office of National Statistics Environmental Accounts report reveals that the amount of materials consumed in the UK (including those used to make imports) has fallen from a peak of 889.9 million tonnes in 2001 to 659.1 million tonnes in 2013. Another way of looking at it is that over the same period the amount of biomass, metals, minerals and fossil fuel consumed per person in the UK fell by about one third, from 15.1 million tonnes to 10.3 million tonnes. Some commentators have seized on the report as evidence of ‘peak stuff’ – a term often used to suggest that our capacity and/or appetite for material goods is finite and reversible. In fact, material consumption is much more likely to be influenced by economic factors and advances in technology, manufacturing, mining/extraction and even recycling than whether or not we feel the urge to buy an extra cushion for the sofa. Indeed, the ONS figures show that material consumption was lowest in 2011 (642 million tonnes or 10.1 tonnes per person).
For evidence of the impact of technological and manufacturing advances on resource efficiency, you just need to look around the office. From the smart MFP in the corner to the smartphone in your hand, from energy-efficient LED lighting overhead to recycled carpet tiles underfoot, we are now able to do so much more with so much less. The smartphone is the most obvious example – telephone, music player, radio, entertainment system, torch. With NFC, your phone can be used as a form of identification at network MFPs, as a key to unlock doors and as an electronic wallet. And then you’ve got all the apps. Network multifunction printers, too, offer a range of tools in one compact footprint and, apeing smartphones, provide a platform for document-related apps. The big difference is that MFPs are continuing to shrink, whereas smartphones and tablets have started to get bigger. The cloud is another example of how modern IT enables more efficient use of resources by reducing the need for businesses to acquire, accommodate, maintain and update/upgrade servers and software. ONS analysis shows that greater resource efficiency combined with increases in GDP has led to a marked increase in resource productivity – the economic value of every kilogram of material consumed – from £1.87 per kg in 2000 to £2.98 per kg in 2013. If only worker productivity had risen at the same rate.
James Goulding, Editor, email@example.com
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