The amount of stuff the UK consumes has fallen dramatically since 2001, according to official government figures.
The Office for National Statistics data reveals that on average people used 15 tonnes of material in 2001 compared with just over 10 tonnes in 2013.
The figures look at the total amount of biomass (crops, wood and fish), coal, oil and gas, metal and non-metallic minerals (such as construction materials) used in the UK every year.
Some of the biggest decreases have been in metal ore consumption, in part because the amount of metal required to manufacture modern domestic goods such as fridges and washing machines is far lower than in the past.
UK households have also abandoned buying many resource-intensive goods common in the recent past – such as metal-heavy video recorders and hi-fi systems, vinyl records, CDs and books – as they shift to digital consumption.
Not only is the UK consuming fewer materials, it is also consuming a smaller amount than its neighbours. According to the ONS, Germany is by far the biggest consumer of materials in Europe, with the UK fourth, behind Poland.
Per capita, consumers use less material than any other country in Europe except Spain. The figures take into account both domestic consumption plus imports and exports.
Even the total weight of biomass consumed has fallen, despite a rising population. The ONS said that in 2000 the UK chomped and burned its way through 188m tonnes of crops, fish and wood, compared with 172.5m in 2013, the last year for which figures are available.
Fossil energy consumption peaked in 2001 at 283m tonnes. In 2012 it was 249m tonnes, although this was an increase on the lows of 2008-09.
But the country’s environmental accounts can be interpreted in many ways. The switch to a service-based economy rather than a manufacturing one means Britain consumes far fewer materials and energy for every unit of economic output compared with economies such as Germany.
The ONS said: “Over the 2000 to 2013 period, resource productivity (the relationship between economic activity and material consumption) in the UK has positively increased, rising 59.4% from £1.87 per kg in 2000 to £2.98 per kg in 2013, reflecting the shift away from manufacturing towards financial and other service industries.”
The figures also show a sharp decrease in the amount of construction materials used in the UK – which probably may reflect the fall in housebuilding and infrastructure spending rather than improved efficiency.
The volume of non-metallic minerals used in the UK fell from 321m tonnes in 2000 to 212m tonnes in 2013. This includes goods such as sand, gravel, limestone and gypsum used in housebuilding and construction.
The physical weight of goods imported into the UK has actually risen over the past 13 years, while the amount exported has fallen. “More materials are imported than exported and the gap between imports and exports has widened over the 2000 to 2013 period,” said the ONS.
“This suggests that we are becoming more reliant on the production of materials in other countries, which may be related to the reduced cost of sourcing some products from abroad.”
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