March 29, 2023

UK population consumes 15.3 tonnes of materials per person per year, 20% more than the global average

  • The UK consumes 15.3 tonnes of materials per capita, 20% more than the global average of 12 tonnes
  • Only 7.5% of these materials are used again
  • Adopting more circular, sustainable solutions could cut material use by 40%
  • This could in turn decrease the UK’s carbon footprint by 43% 

The UK economy consumes nearly twice as many materials per capita as the sustainable level of 8 tonnes per person, per year. Without tackling overconsumption through the reuse and recycling of products, the country could struggle to meet its net zero emissions target, finds the Circularity Gap Report the United Kingdom by Circle Economy, in collaboration with Deloitte. 

Globally, 70% of emissions come from the use and handling of materials , and lowering material consumption is crucial for combating climate change. The Circularity Gap Report the United Kingdom examines the UK economy’s material use for the first time, uncovering how materials—including food and fossil fuels—are extracted, used and disposed of. The report indicates that the UK’s population consumes roughly 20% more than the global average of 12 tonnes per person, per year: 15.3 tonnes of materials per capita. This figure includes goods produced in other countries that are sold and used in the UK.

Material extraction and use is not evenly distributed across the UK. While the bulk of materials are extracted in resource-rich but sparsely populated Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they are mostly used in England, a densely populated consumption hotspot. For example, the material extraction in Scotland and Northern Ireland amounts to 22.8 and 14.5 tonnes per capita respectively, compared with the UK’s average of 6.3 tonnes. 

Of all the materials that flow through the UK’s economy, just 7.5% are used again. This is slightly above the global figure of 7.2%. While the UK imports 80% of the total raw materials it uses, it exports vast amounts of recyclable waste, around ten times more than it imports. This disparity is partly explained by a lack of domestic recycling infrastructure. By making changes and adopting more circular solutions* in areas like construction, manufacturing and lifestyle, the UK could cut its material use by 40%, while decreasing its carbon footprint by 43%. 

For example, the mass insulation of UK’s buildings—which are older and with poorer energy labels than the European average—could greatly reduce energy use. As fossil fuels are considered materials, this would cut material consumption and move the UK closer to a circular economy. 

The study also advises rethinking revenue models for businesses and industries, for instance, by choosing rental models over single-sale, and boosting repair services. Lifestyle change also has great potential to bolster the circular economy. Buying fewer goods and keeping them longer, keeping vacation travel closer tothe UK, and eating less meat are just a few of the behaviours that can boost circularity. If the UK were to implement all of the report’s recommendations, its economy could become 12.1% circular—almost double the current level.

David Rakowski, circularity partner at Deloitte commented: “With only 7.5% of materials that flow through the UK economy used again, a circularity gap exists. While this is a sustainability challenge the country must overcome, it is also an opportunity for businesses to learn, adapt and grow. 

“Adopting sustainable practices and taking a circular approach it ultimately good for business, consumers and for the planet. UK businesses must start to consider to what extent their supply chains and the goods they produce are geared towards single use. Piloting strategies that allow them to ensure products are created in a sustainable way, to be used and reused, is key to ensuring their own growth, as well as decreasing the country’s carbon footprint.”

* A circular economy is a system in which waste is designed out, products are made to last and are used for as long as possible, and materials are reused at their greatest value. In a linear system, materials are extracted, processed into products and eventually largely thrown away: take, make, waste.

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