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The geography of my stuff - Global impacts and possible actions

The geography of my stuff

This lesson looks at how UK demand for stuff can have implications all over the world.

Key questions

  • How does the demand for consumer items in the UK have impacts across the globe?
  • How does the demand for consumer items affect different societies and environments?
  • How can we help to reduce the damage caused by runaway consumerism?

Key concepts

  • Place
  • Interdependence
  • Environmental interaction
  • Space

How does the demand for consumer items in the UK have impacts across the globe?

Consumerism is linked with issues on a range of scales that have been covered in this unit so far:

  • Excessive food miles and climate change
  • Loss of green belt land
  • Child labour and labour exploitation
  • Depletion of resources
  • Online fraud
  • Changes to our communities

How does the demand for consumer items affect different societies and environments?

In the UK we consume a lot. As a result, we throw away a lot of rubbish. Currently, levels of household waste in the UK are increasing at a rate of three per cent each year. This equates to a doubling of levels every twenty years. Waste levels spike during Christmas and New Year, with about one-tenth of our annual rubbish (three million tonnes) being generated over the festive period. The government sponsored organisation Recycle Now estimates that we throw away one billion Christmas cards, eight million Christmas trees and 750 million bottles every year. Turkey foil alone creates 3,000 tonnes of waste and 83 million km2 of wrapping paper are used. This creates a huge impact on the environment. Currently, 75% of our waste ends up in landfill, although new laws are being introduced in the UK that will impose taxes on local councils if more materials are not recycled instead. But waste isn't the only environmental problem created by the Christmas festival. According to scientists at the Institute of Physics, the UK generates two million tonnes of extra greenhouse gases at this time of year roasting turkeys, watching extra TV and lighting up houses with Christmas lights.

In the UK we have also increased our consumption of bottled water at the fastest rate of any country in Europe over the last five years. This is strange, considering that we have some of the best quality tap water in the world. The impact of these plastic bottles - which take hundreds of years to decompose - is huge as the vast majority of plastic bottles are neither reused nor recycled.

But it is not just our own land fill sites that are suffering. Much of our waste is shipped 5000 miles for recycling in China. In 2006, China exported £12.6 billion worth of manufactured goods to the UK, and received 1.9 million tonnes of rubbish in return. It is illegal for EU countries to export waste for disposal, but it can be shipped out for recycling. Unfortunately, many of the recycling plants it is sent to are unregulated, creating pollution and health risks.

How can we help to reduce the damage caused by runaway consumerism?

There are four actions (the four Rs) that can help us use less of the earth's natural resources:

  • Recycle - Waste products are broken down and used to make another product, for example plastic bottles are melted down and used to make new bottles, or in some cases, fleeces. Paper can be pulped and used to make new paper, meaning that fewer trees need to be cut down
  • Reuse - Many items can be reused several times before they are thrown away, for example plastic bags or plastic bottles, which can be refilled from the tap. Reusing items means that fewer need to be manufactured in the first place, saving valuable resources
  • Refuse - Before buying something new, ask yourself whether you really need it. Consider refusing to buy excessively packaged goods - this type of consumer boycott puts pressure on manufacturers to reduce their packaging. Take your own bag to the supermarket and refuse a plastic carrier bag
  • Repair - Before throwing away a broken object consider whether it can be repaired - either by yourself or by a professional. Torn clothes can be stitched, broken toys glued, even computers can be fixed. Getting something repaired rather than buying a replacement again saves resources and prevents more and more waste being sent to landfill





What have we learned about the impacts of excessive consumerism so far?

As a class, use what you have learnt from this unit so far to brainstorm the problems that are linked to excessive consumption. Remember to consider impacts on a range of scales from individual to global.

In the remainder of this lesson, we will look at some of these impacts through case study examples.



Happy holidays. What are the impacts of Christmas, Easter and Valentine's Day purchasing?

Working in a group, research a holiday or festival of your choice. It can be anything - why not try Halloween, 5 November, a non-Christian festival or a rock festival such as Glastonbury.

Prepare a summary report to describe five important impacts of consumerism linked to the festival you've chosen. Divide your impacts into social and environmental effects.

You can present your findings to the rest of the class as a talk, poster or PowerPoint presentation.

The following links to documents and articles above will provide you with some further information to get you started.

The Four Rs (Recycle, Re-use, Refuse and Repair)

What can we do to reduce the environmental impact of our consumption? Unless we want to actually start buying less (which would be unpopular with many people!), we need to work to reduce the carbon footprint of the things we consume:

  • Firstly, by recycling the packaging from things we buy
  • Secondly, by re-using items (re-fill a water bottle from the tap)
  • Thirdly, by putting pressure on manufacturers to reduce packaging by refusing to buy excessively-packaged goods (a ‘consumer boycott')
  • Fourthly by making more of an effort to repair broken items

Download the four R's PowerPoint presentation to find out more about the four Rs.

One major area of waste in the UK is plastic bottles, particularly for bottled water. Complete the bottles everywhere activity which looks at the advantages and disadvantages of different strategies to deal with this problem.

You can find out more about recycling industries in China and India, including what happens to our recycling, by following the links above.



Complete the quiz to test your knowledge and understanding of the main themes we have studied over the course of this unit.

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