Natural resources are the provision for sustaining life on Earth. As mankind has become technologically and economically advanced the consumption of natural resources has accelerated, leading to depletion and risk of harm to all living things that are dependent on these precious reserves.
To prevent the ecosystem collapse that would come from exhausting the Earth’s key resources, mankind needs to make efforts to safeguard the raw materials that remain. In this article, we share how to conserve natural resources with 20 ways to slow or stop the resource depletion that is taking place right now.
Natural resources are the Earth’s resources
Natural resources are materials that are naturally occurring and drawn from the environment for use by man. These are the raw materials that go into the foods we eat, and products we use, shelter us, and power our vehicles, homes, and businesses.
Examples of natural resources include:
- Fossil fuels
- Trees and vegetation
- The animal kingdom
Why is it important to conserve natural resources?
Many natural resources are abundant and replenished after use, but some are becoming depleted as a consequence of increasing demand. Without action to conserve key natural resources future generations won’t have access to them.
Worse still, the natural resources that are being exhausted underpin the stability and ongoing function of the ecosystems that living things are reliant on. Depletion or contamination of water, air, tree, or soil makes regions uninhabitable, reflected in a loss of biodiversity and a precipitous decline in human health.
Natural resource conservation is non-negotiable as the environmental degradation that would result from the depletion of key natural resources would threaten all life on Earth. Resource scarcity is already a recognized driver of poverty, wars, and population displacement so an acceleration in such shortages would lead to tumultuous circumstances for all.
How to conserve natural resources
Natural resources are essential to life so we should make every effort to preserve them for use by future generations. Here are 20 ways to conserve natural resources.
1. Reduce, reuse, and recycle
Runaway consumption is driving the depletion of our natural resources. In many economically and technologically advanced nations, people are increasingly disconnected from the sources of the natural resources they consume. It is, therefore, easy to discard items that, with a little TLC, could have their shelf-life extended.
Case in point, electronic waste. 50 million metric tons of e-waste, including laptops, phones, microwaves, and kettles, hit the landfill each year. These items could be repaired or have the useful plastic and metal within them recovered and recycled to reduce the consumption of raw materials to make new goods.
Efforts to introduce circular economies for common products will require public education and engagement so that people can change habits that lead to high levels of waste.
2. Composting waste will do a world of good to our soils and drive down landfill volumes
Composting has so many restorative benefits to our environment. It makes sense that the organic matter and nutrients in the food and other materials we consume should be biodegraded and returned to the earth in a practical way. In the US, 28% of waste that hits the landfill could have been composted.
Here are some of the benefits that increasing compositing could deliver:
- Curbing greenhouse gas emissions from landfills.
- Reducing greenhouse gasses through being used to grow plants that absorb and use CO2.
- Replenishing depleted soils with organic matter, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers, and making environments more resilient to climate extremes.
3. Advance recycling technology to reclaim more from our waste
Despite the global recycling rate stagnating at a low of 19%, the exploitation of natural resources for new materials continues to accelerate. Recycling is energy intensive and expensive, meaning that waste management companies, governments, and local authorities are often reticent to invest in recycling.
But the development of improved technologies that increase the volume and diversity of recycling could be the driver of increased adoption.
Current advancements in recycling are targeting mechanical recycling processes, which are reliant on clean and sorted waste. New technologies have been developed to expand the range of plastics that can be recycled and develop recycled materials that have more end-market applications.
Construction of an advanced hydrothermal recycling plant is currently underway in Dow’s Böhlen site in Germany. The plant is capable of producing virgin-equivalent polyethylene that is suitable for medical and automotive applications.
4. Starve the single-use plastics market
Plastics not only consume natural resources in the form of oil but also are pervasive polluters of our environment. The manufacture of new plastics uses about 4% of oil production, and despite being highly recyclable, only 9% of the world’s plastic is reused or recycled.
There are so many less polluting and sustainable alternatives to plastics, making disposable plastics completely unnecessary. However, while it remains profitable to produce them, they will continue to be made.
There have been legislative efforts and initiatives to reduce or frankly ban single-use plastics, but perhaps the most powerful deterrent of all will be consumer choice. As consumers and businesses increase their rejection of plastic, consumer-packaged goods(CPG) companies will be forced to use other materials.
5. Park that car to reduce fossil fuel consumption and air pollution
The internal combustion engine (ICE) ranks as one of mankind’s greatest inventions, but in many societies, car journeys have become the default mode of travel despite their significant environmental impact.
In the USA, more than half of all car journeys are under three miles, with 28% of car journeys under a mile in length. These short car journeys are the most energy-inefficient and polluting car journeys, and while it is unlikely everyone will become Amish shortly, efforts to reduce these journeys could have a significant impact on resource consumption.
The Environmental Protection Agency has already found that leaving the car for journeys under one mile could deliver:
- A $575 million saving in fuel costs.
- A reduction in CO2 emissions of over 2 million metric tons per year.
- The equivalent of taking more than 400,000 cars off the road each year.
- $900 million of savings overall, including costs for vehicle maintenance and tire replacement.
6. Cut out processed food!
Much has been said about the environmental impact of raising livestock and eating meat, which has been done by mankind for thousands of years. Rather than stop eating meat, we need to encourage animal husbandry in landscapes with deteriorated soils so that their dung can return vital nutrients to the earth.
Intensive farming fuels a resource-intensive processed food industry that degrades the environment and harms human health. The production of ultra-processed foods like fast-food takeaways, sugars, and oils generates some of the largest emissions in the food sector.
A study by the University of Sheffield found that ultra-processed foods are taking up an increasing proportion of human diets. By reducing these unhealthy foods, we can reduce the pressure on the natural resources that are used to produce them.
7. Demolish the global food mountain
10% of the world’s population is going hungry right now, while 2.5 billion tons, a third of the food the world produces each year, goes to waste.
Many organizations and think tanks suggest that overpopulation is driving accelerated natural resource consumption in the agricultural sector. But there is sufficient food being produced at every stage of the food life cycle.
This unacceptable situation points to the catastrophic wastage of a heavily industrialized agricultural sector. By minimizing (or ideally eliminating this waste), the natural resources that would be used to produce additional food are conserved.
Strategies for reducing food waste include ensuring that hungry people are fed, repurposing wasted or spent food oils for biodiesel production, and creating a more responsive distribution and supply chain for foods so they can get to the most food-insecure populations rather than perish.
8. Planting trees protects soils, sustains communities, and balances atmospheric gasses
Trees are being cut down at a rate of over 15 billion per year. It’s clear that deforestation is a runaway problem and without action to stop the loss of trees and forests, the environment will become irreparably degraded.
Recognizing the precipitous decline in forest cover, people and organizations across the world are making efforts to plant trees, to recover their essential benefits to ecosystems and communities. Planting trees delivers the following benefits:
- Prevention of soil erosion: The loss of trees and their roots which hold and exchange nutrients with soil, leads to rapid loss of the nutrient and moisture-rich humus layers, desiccation, and degradation of the land. Sloped land without trees is also vulnerable to mudslides.
- Filtration of air pollution: Many tree species actively remove pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone from the air. Targeted plantings in areas with high levels of air pollution can help improve air quality for local people.
- Provision of a carbon sink: Trees are a mighty carbon sink. They thrive on carbon dioxide, turning it into sugar and using it for growth! New forests will act as reservoirs that soak up CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into useful growth and a sustainable supply of wood and energy.
- Creation of habitats: Trees form the foundation of thriving habitats where species of almost every class can thrive. Wildlife will soon be attracted to newly forested areas, renewing biodiversity.
9. Water conservation strategies can help to safeguard the Earth’s freshwater
Despite being such an abundant resource, only a very small proportion of the Earth’s water is usable. Freshwater represents just 3% of the Earth’s total water volume, with 0.3% of that amount being the readily accessible surface water we find in rivers, lakes, and ponds.
Though water is continuously cycled in our environment and is essentially a closed system, human demands on natural freshwater resources like groundwater can lead to levels becoming depleted at a faster rate than they can be replenished.
Depleted groundwater resources are an international issue, especially in regions where populations are dense. Water conservation strategies like rainwater collection, using less water, and repairing leaks in municipal water systems, can go a long way to maintaining the availability of this vital natural resource in the long term.
10. Invest in landfill mining
Rather than mining virgin natural resources, why not mine the natural resources that are in municipal solid waste? Well, landfill mining and reclamation (LFMR) has been taking place since the 1950s but requires significant investment to become routine.
In LFMR, landfilled solid waste is actively excavated and reprocessed for the recovery of valuable metal, combustible materials for pelleting, and other recyclable materials. Hazardous waste can also be recovered and disposed of more appropriately, and the landfill soils can be aerated, improving environmental conditions.
11. Minimize air travel
In modern times, air travel has become relatively cheap and convenient, making flights to a range of domestic and international destinations a matter of choice rather than necessity. But air travel is also a big polluter, consuming large amounts of non-renewable fossil fuels.
In addition, many airplanes fly with a significant proportion of empty seats. Industry rules on airport usage compel many airlines to fly empty airplanes to keep their spot at airports. This incredibly wasteful practice is known as ‘ghost flights.’
Of course, aviation fuel is taxed, but there are few incentives to encourage airlines to make aviation more sustainable and reduce its consumption of natural resources. Here are some ideas:
- Tackling ghost flights by reforming the system by which airport slots are allocated to airlines.
- Investing in an enhanced road and rail infrastructure.
- Setting industry-wide minimum seat occupancy levels.
- Reduce the number of short-haul and domestic flights, especially those that could be completed by rail, car, or ferry.
- Lower airfares more quickly to fill seats on every flight.
- Improve high-speed rail infrastructure to encourage rail travel where possible.
- Promote domestic tourism rather than overseas breaks, or long-distance vacations
12. Build thriving local economies
The 20th century brought massive changes to the way we live. The rapid rise in consumerism and urbanization has led to concentrated global supply chains and big brands that transport goods over thousands of miles using energy-intensive methods like air freight, shipping, and rail.
A switch to procuring local products and goods could significantly reduce the consumption of natural resources required to produce, process, and transport goods worldwide. Rather than intensive farming with fruits and vegetables flown in, retailers could encourage a local seasonal diet that is packaging free.
It’s also important that local communities become places of productivity and not just consumption. By opting to support truly local manufacturers, producers, and businesses, communities can become sustainable and resilient against macroeconomic changes.
13. Dress for sustainability and not just to impress!
Fast fashion may be popular, but it is certainly making a ‘fashion victim’ of the planet! The accelerated production, purchase, and discarding of clothing is generating massive amounts of waste. This is despite textiles being one of the most recyclable materials.
The production of clothing consumes massive amounts of energy, water, petrochemicals, and other raw materials along with the generation of land, air, and water pollution.
By changing our clothing choices, we can help conserve the natural resources used to produce them and reduce their harmful environmental impact. Here, the principles of ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ could drive down clothing waste and make its production more sustainable.
14. Get creative with conserving energy
Energy is the driver of the modern way of life for most of the world. Everyone needs heat and light, and power for even the simplest industries and livelihoods. So it’s no surprise that energy resources are under increasing strain as global economic advancement (industrialization) continues.
Energy consumption is primarily at the expense of fossil fuel reserves. These are currently vast but diminishing rapidly, with some estimates suggesting less than 50 years of oil remaining if current levels of consumption continue. Though renewable energy sources are increasingly being harnessed, they cannot meet the demands of an advanced economy.
Saving energy shouldn’t be seen as a privation but an opportunity to be free thinking and innovative, creating devices and appliances that are more energy efficient and providing consumers with ways to track and control their energy consumption.
15. Increase national parks and wildlife reserves
The amazing habitats and ecosystems of the Earth are an invaluable heritage that needs to be protected from the sustained assaults of deforestation and urbanization. Many unique habitats with known and unknown species are becoming extinct due to a woeful lack of effort to preserve them and conservation targets like those of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
The creation of legally protected national parks and wildlife reserves not only provides a safe habitat for endangered wildlife but also conserves the natural resources of some of the world’s most unique environments. Respecting local knowledge and acknowledging indigenous peoples as stakeholders and protectors of the reserve could help reserves become successful.
16. Have a large family
Many people are concerned that the world is overpopulated, but did you know that large families are some of the most sustainable households around? Parents who raise a large family have to be masters of the adaptations that conserve natural resources, leading to a lower environmental footprint.
Malthus may not agree, but these families have to become experts at using resources effectively. If you are looking for an example of reduce, reuse, recycle, large families with their hand-me-downs, home-cooked meals, and an eye on the thermostat, tick the box.
In addition, these resilient households are often multi-generational, caring for seniors in their later years. This means fewer individualized households with additional food, heating, and travel.
17. Adopt biofuels and give the oil and gas a rest
Biofuels could easily offset a significant proportion of the non-renewable fossil fuels that are used for heating and transportation. Food waste like cooking oil and carbohydrate-rich agricultural waste can be transferred into fuels that include:
Biofuel is a promising alternative to petrol and gasoline. It has the scope for being scaled, and as adoption increases, engines and furnaces can be adapted to burn this fuel cleanly and efficiently.
18. Increase awareness
Many of the efforts and initiatives to conserve natural resources are reliant on behavioral change. This is reflected in the fact that the world’s richest countries consume a year’s worth of regenerative natural resources in just a few months.
The people around us need to become more aware of the rate of consumption of natural resources and the implications of resource depletion for everyone. By talking about these issues with friends and families, awareness of these issues can be increased, and people can make informed and positive choices.
The power of a good example should never be underestimated and is one of the best ways to share the real-world benefits of living more sustainably. When people around you see the money saved, improved health, and uplift in the quality of life that can come with sustainable living, they will be willing to try it for themselves.
19. Give the bin a rest and cut back on disposables
Disposables are products that are manufactured for the bin. Items like pocket tissues, wet wipes, sanitary towels, kitchen towels, and nappies are incredibly convenient but sit in landfills and clog drains.
But many of these everyday items could be effectively replaced with reusable, cloth-based alternatives that you can simply throw in the laundry when done. Not only would you save money, but fewer raw materials and less energy will be required for making these products in the long run.
20. Go chemical-free!
Within the last 200 years, mankind has developed more than 150 million different chemicals that are used in every area of our lives and saturate our environment. The chemical industry is one of the largest industries in the world and continues to grow. However, this is at the expense of our health and the environment.
Though many of the chemicals that are pervasive in our environment are harmless, a significant proportion are known to be environmentally hazardous and pose a risk to the ecosystems they are present in.
By opting to forgo using man-made chemicals wherever possible, we can help to reduce the environmental burden of these substances. Even a simple switch of chemical-laden cleaning sprays to white vinegar prevents ongoing harm to aquatic life.
Natural resources are under threat. Remedial action has to be taken to reduce the rate of consumption before the already pervasive effects of environmental degradation and resource depletion become completely irreversible.
Thankfully, as you can see, there are numerous ways in which everyone can participate in taking action to curb the depletion of natural resources.
Wondering how highly-developed countries deal with environmental challenges? Learn how Japan tackles its environmental issues.