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Consumption and Waste Pathway

eight pathways consumptionwaste

Consumption refers to all the resources we purchase, wear, use, eat, drink, and otherwise surround ourselves with. At the end of this cycle is waste, the things we dispose of because they are left over, worn out, used up, or not needed. For example, after you purchase and drink a soda, the bottle becomes waste to be tossed out.

Both consumption and waste have major environmental impacts. Producing goods and transporting them to consumers uses large quantities of fossil fuels and produces pollution, particularly carbon dioxide (the major greenhouse gas leading to climate change). When these products become waste, they are transported again, usually to landfills, where they produce methane (another potent greenhouse gas) as they break down, or to incinerators, which generate more pollution as they burn.

Although the United States is home to just 5 percent of the world's population, it generates 30 percent of its trash. The average American creates a staggering 4.5 pounds of garbage daily. Almost everything we do creates waste, and as a society we are currently producing more waste than ever before.


When it comes to tackling the problem of waste, remember the Three Rs:

  • Reduce: Change manufacturing processes and buying habits to use less material and generate less waste.
  • Reuse: Choose goods and products that can be used again.
  • Recycle: Re-process waste into new products wherever possible. This often uses less energy and causes less pollution than starting with new raw materials.


What Can Schools Do About Consumption and Waste?

Most school waste is made up of food, paper and packaging waste. It may also contain some glass, metals and plastics. A school can reduce its environmental impact by analyzing the full life cycle of the products it uses. Trimming consumption, reducing packaging and transport distance, and recycling as many items as possible all translate into smaller amounts of garbage being hauled away.

Monitoring the amount of trash a school creates, and taking steps to minimize this amount, takes time, effort and the cooperation of the whole school. But this can be a very rewarding process. Not only will the school community become more aware of the impacts of its buying and disposal habits, but the school may also see direct financial benefits, such as a reduction in waste disposal costs and revenue from selling recyclable items.

Waste that isn't disposed of properly becomes a visible problem in the form of litter on school grounds. By tackling litter along with other aspects of waste disposal, you can eliminate an unsightly problem, boosting both your school's image and students' pride.

To work out how best to minimize the waste your school produces, you will need to look at each type of waste in turn. Completing a consumption and waste audit will help you do this. Again, think of the Three Rs:

  • Can we reduce the waste generated in the first place?
  • If not, can we reuse it?
  • If we can't reuse it, can we recycle it?

Has your school developed a great way to tackle consumption and waste? If so, why not share it with everyone on our Facebook page?

American Federation of Teachers
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Check-out AFT's Building Minds, Minding Building publications focused on energy conservationgreen cleaning and school recycling.

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The Story of Stuff
The Story of Stuff

A 20-minute, fact-filled video introduction to U.S. consumption and habits.