Sustainable consumption versus waste

How well we utilize a variety of things that we buy? Michael Sivak looks at the data for everything from our cars to our clothes.



Michael Sivak is the managing director of Sivak Applied Research and the former director of Sustainable Worldwide Transportation at the University of Michigan. Here he delivers the data on a regular topic on TreeHugger – waste.

Virtually all products that we use take energy and natural resources to produce. Furthermore, the production cycle typically generates greenhouse gases and other undesirable emissions. Finally, at the end of their useful lives, many products create challenges for environmentally responsible disposal. Thus, it is instructive to step back and quantify how well we utilize a variety of things that we buy, to see whether we could make progress in this area with respect to more sustainable living.

The discussion will briefly touch on the use of vehicles, smartphones, clothing, and food, as well as on the related areas of municipal waste and off-site storage. For a broader view, most recent data available for the United States for the examined aspects will be compared with those from a few years back, and with data for the United Kingdom (if available), Great Britain, or the European Union.


traffic jam

As of 2019, the average age of cars and light trucks in the United States was 11.8 years, up from 8.4 years in 1995. In comparison, the average age of cars and vans in the United Kingdom in 2017 was 8.1 years.


 online shoppingThe average interval between consumers upgrading smartphones in the United States in 2018 was 24.7 months, up from 22.7 months in 2016. In Great Britain in 2018 the average interval was 27.7 months. (The fact that some phone manufacturers do not provide software updates for older models is not conducive to keeping phones longer.)


clothes closet

In the United States, the average number of times a new garment is worn (by the original owner or as a hand-me-down) before it ceases to be used was 35 in 2016, down from 41 in 2002, while in the European Union in 2016 it was 96.


 food waste

recent study, based on data from 2007 through 2014, estimated that Americans waste about 30% of food calories available at the consumer level, or about 340 pounds of food per person every year. (Food waste per person from both residential and commercial sources increased by about 15% from 2000 to 2017.) Household food waste in the United Kingdom in 2015 was estimated at 238 pounds per person.

 Municipal waste

 Garbage trucks

OECD defines municipal waste as waste collected and treated by or for municipalities. (This does not include construction and demolition debris or municipal sewage.) In 2015, Americans generated 4.5 pounds of municipal waste per person per day, down from 4.7 pounds in 2000. The average person in the United Kingdom in 2015 generated 2.9 pounds of municipal waste.

 Off-site self-storage

Storage units

Related to the issue of trash is self-storage in off-site facilities, to the extent that a substantial proportion of items in self-storage is not needed. Recent growth in self-storage in the United States has been rapid. For example, the spending on construction of self-storage facilities in 2018 amounted to about $5 billion, as compared with about $1 billion in 2015.

Holding on to products longer might, in some cases, lead to a tradeoff between sustainability and safety. A case in point is vehicles, which are affected in two ways with increased age. First, especially during the past few years, new vehicles tend to be equipped with several advanced safety systems that were either nonexistent or rare a few years ago. Second, there is an increased probability of some vehicle components degrading over time or with prolonged use. (The fact that periodic vehicle inspections are required only in some U.S. states, but throughout the United Kingdom, might have contributed to the above-mentioned statistics showing that vehicles in the United States tend to be older than in the United Kingdom.)

Economic considerations

 woman with shopping bags


Although we have made some progress recently in some of the examined areas, it is clear that we can be more sustainable consumers by making better use of what we purchase, with a resultant reduction in the amount of purchases. That would be consistent with the desired general strategy of individual Americans assisting in meeting the Paris climate agreement. This is especially needed given that the current administration not only withdrew from the Paris agreement but also rolled back numerous effective environmental regulations in a variety of areas.