23 August 2021
This year Earth Overshoot Day fell on 29 July. From this day forth, we are living on credit. This is the day that humanity has used up the available resources for the year. In less than eight months we have used more natural resources than the earth is able to produce. This is reflected in all sorts of environmental problems, from climate change to deforestation, biodiversity loss and a continuously thickening plastic soup.
The calculation of the ecological footprint is a powerful tool to make it clear that humans are over exploiting the earth. To meet the current use of raw materials by the world’s population, we need 1.7 earths and we only have one.
EARLIER AND EARLIER EVERY YEAR
Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier every year. In 1970 it fell on 30 December, in 2007 on 13 August and this year on 29 July. This is because the level of over exploiting increases every year, the only exception being the corona year of 2020. This day, calculated by Global Footprint Network (GFN), applies to the earth as a whole. There are large differences in every country as the footprint per person differs. In the Netherlands this year, Earth Overshoot Day fell on 27 April while in Indonesia, this will only be on 18 December. The bigger the footprint of a country, the sooner the Overshoot day is. In the United States, this was 14 March this year. The countries where Earth Overshoot Day falls early, are always the countries with high consumption rates per inhabitant per year.
By reducing the footprint, Earth Overshoot Day could be pushed back. Greenhouse gasses make up about 60% of the footprint. Pushing back the current level of carbon emissions by half would give the Earth 93 days. These calculations can also be made for other factors. If we would plant 350 million hectares of trees worldwide, the day would fall nine days later in the year. The world’s population and its growth rate is also an important factor. The GFN calculates that if every parental couple would have 1.8 children on average instead of the current 2.3, and the first child would be born two years later, the earth would gain 49 days.
PLASTIC OVERSHOOT DAY
The GFN did not calculate the number of days later Earth Overshoot Day would fall in the year if we would not use any more plastic and would recycle all the plastic. The Plastic Overshoot Day for 2021 has been determined for the United States though by another organization. This alarming date fell on 16 January. This means that every kilo of plastic that is used and not recycled this year after 16 January is new virgin plastic. Fossil fuels are used to produce new plastic and if plastic waste is not recycled but incinerated, CO2 is released.
PLASTIC AS A REPLACEMENT FOR OTHER RAW MATERIALS
Plastic is a complicated issue and this is likely to be the reason that the GFN has still not produced any calculations for it. To calculate the number of days that the earth would gain by turning the tide on plastic, not only should recycling be calculated (i.e. less raw materials), but also plastic pollution (less plastic in the environment) and the effects of replacing plastic with other materials. This is extremely complicated and the calculation would be different for every application. The effects of a plastic container that is only used once is very different to one that is reused time and again.
However, that there is an overshoot of plastic is crystal clear. We use much too much of this cheap wonder material that has all sorts of environmental and health problems. In 2017 it was estimated that up to 2015, 8.3 billion tons of new plastic was produced, of which only 9% (0.7 billion tons) was recycled and 79% (6.6. billion tons) is either in landfills or is floating about the environment. With a world population of 7.4 billion people in 2015, this amounted to about 900 kilos per person. We are now six years on and that amount has probably exceeded 1,000 kilos.
Earth Overshoot Day holds up a mirror to us, even if Plastic Overshoot Day is hard to calculate. We must not stare blindly at collecting plastic, recycling and clean-ups. We need to reduce our ecological footprint, particularly in rich countries, and try to slow down the population growth in the world.
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