Our waste is deeply intertwined with our way of living. It is therefore something we cannot simply fix by only looking at our “trash can” because it is influenced by our culture, our economy, our privilege, our location, and so much more. Doing a waste audit is a great place to start, but a bad place to stop then because it doesn't address those larger systems. Why, though, you might ask, do we need to tackle our waste in the first place?
The Issue of Waste
The list of reasons is very, very, very long. And whole books have been written about our obsession with stuff and our horrible waste management (check out my recommended reading list if you're interested). If you’re just looking for a few highlights though to get yourself motivated or to rattle off to questioning relatives, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most terrifying facts about our waste. Just a fair warning, this list is quite depressing and anger provoking.
1. We throw away 4.51 pounds of garbage per person per day.
According to an EPA study conducted in 2017, it is estimated that each person in the U.S. throws out the equivalent of 4.51 pounds of waste per day. That ends up being 267.8 million tonnes of waste each year across the country!
2. The amount of garbage we made in 1960 was just 2.68 pounds per person per day.
The peak estimated waste per person per day was in 2000 at 4.74 pounds and has since fluctuated up and down depending on the state of the economy and recessions. We have not yet through managed to create a downward trend in our waste production across multiple years. We are producing more and more waste.
3. Approximately a third of the food produced world wide is wasted and/or lost, meaning that it isn't consumed.
This waste happens at the production level, the retail level, and the consumer level. It is estimated that 40% of the food wasted in developed countries is at the consumer level. In North America, we throw out almost the same amount of food at the consumer level (i.e. in our homes) as is produced in total in sub-Saharah Africa. In other words, we throw out enough food to replace what is grown in 46 countries...
4. Only 6.5% of the food we waste ends up being composted; the rest is landfilled.
In the U.S. the EPA estimates that only a fraction of the food we waste will actually be composted, either through industrial composting facilities or backyard compost bins. That means we are sending 93.5% of our lost food through the garbage system.
5. ~35% of our landfilled trash is organic waste that could have been composted.
The EPA details that in 2017 landfilled trash consisted of 21.9% food, 8.9% wood, and 6.4% yard trimmings. That's not even taking into consideration the paper and cardboard that also could have been composted! By implementing widespread and comprehensive composting programs, we have the potential to eliminate over a third of our landfilled waste. That much waste has a huge carbon footprint, financial footprint, and community footprint - when it could be so much smaller!
6. Organic waste in the landfill won't actually decompose.
If you had been holding out hope that having 35% of our landfills filled with organic material wasn't all that bad, I'm sorry to burst your bubble. Unlike the commonly held belief, organic material and food won't actually decompose in landfills because it doesn't have sufficient access to oxygen. When it tries to degrade without oxygen, it produces the toxic gas methane which is a potent greenhouse gas and can cause landfill explosions, endangering workers.
7. Landfills are disproportionately located in communities of color.
Race is the deciding factor for where a landfill will be placed, even when taking into account differences in geography, poverty, and location to large metropolitan areas. Movements like Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) have gained traction in white communities and continued to push landfills into communities of color.
8. Only 9% of the plastic ever created since the 1950's has been recycled.
If you have been faithfully believing that recycling was the solution to our plastic problem, I hate to disappoint you but it's not. Recycling has not been comprehensively or successfully implemented. It has become a green washing technique by large businesses to market their product as "recyclable" and stop there.
9. By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish.
If you think the trash in your community and streets is bad, try comparing it to what the fish have to live through. There is a huge portion of our waste that doesn't even end up in landfills. Our water ways are frequently the dumping grounds for fishing nets, toxic chemicals, and litter.
10. Half of the world's coral reefs have gone extinct.
In just the last 30 years we have managed to kill off half of the coral reefs on our planet. Coral reefs are dying because the waters around them are heating up, which they aren't able to adapt to. The climate crisis is directly causing this rise in temperature and unless addressed, 90% of coral reefs could be extinct by 2050. You can watch the documentary Chasing Coral if you want to learn more.
11. We have a per person carbon footprint in the U.S. of 16.2 tonnes CO2.
That number is three times higher than the global average of only 4.8 tonnes. Carbon footprints are impacted by what we buy, whether we travel, how much we waste, and the types of programs and environmental protections our government provides. Overall, the U.S. isn't doing very well in any of those categories.
12. We throw out 11.2 million tonnes of clothing every year.
In 2017 the EPA estimated that 11.2 million tonnes of textiles were sent to landfills in the U.S. Another 5 million tonnes were recycled and an unknown amount was donated to thrift shops. Clothes can take years to become truly "unwearable", but people throw them out with tiny holes or when they simply don’t like the style anymore. With many people in our communities living on the streets without access to warm clothes, why would we throw them in the trash?
13. We produce 30% more trash during November-December than during the rest of the year.
The holidays are a serious time of consumption in the US! Between Black Friday, Christmas, and New Years, we waste food, buy junky gifts, and decorate our houses with disposable decorations. Instead of waiting to tackle your household waste in January once all the madness has passed, challenge yourself to take it on during the most wasteful time of the year.
14. The recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic containers doesn't actually mean "recyclable", it just tells you the type of plastic.
We have been misinformed to believe that the recycling symbol on the bottom of most plastics means that you can place that item in your curbside bin. Where as, in fact, every type of plastic has one of those symbols with a number inside. The number simply tells you what type of plastic it is. You will only know if that specific type of plastic (and shape and size and weight and color) is actually recyclable in your neighborhood by visiting your local waste management website.
15. Earth Overshoot Day was July 29th last year.
Overshoot day marks the day when we have consumed worldwide more resources than the earth can regenerate in a year. Basically, we are currently exceeding what our earth can sustain and consuming at a rate of 1.75 earths per year. The only reason we don't notice our over consumption is that the earth has been around for millions of years and built up a reserve. That reserve of resources won't last forever though.
16. Microplastics are found in 90% of our table salt.
When we treat our oceans like a waste bin, all the plastic ends up breaking down and contaminating the environment. Our salt too becomes contaminated with tiny reminders of our plastic habit. Soon our own bodies may well show traces of plastic building up inside us!
17. Worldwide we produce only 9.3% of our energy from renewable sources.
In the U.S., we are doing even worse. Back in 2013, only 5.4% of our energy came from sources like wind, solar, and hydro power. Fossil fuels continue to be the primary energy source worldwide, which is a waste of that resource.
18. Communities of color are more likely to be exposed to air pollution and more likely to live near noxious industrial facilities.
Compared to white individuals, people of color are 13% more likely to live near a noxious industrial facility which can cause adverse reactions such as asthma. A study found that people living near this type of facility were 66% more likely to be hospitalized because of asthma. You can read more about environmental racism in the book A Terrible Thing to Waste by Harriet Washington.
19. Wastewater wells from fracking are more likely to be placed in low-income communities and communities of color.
Housing the by-product of fracking, these wells are disasters waiting to happen. If they crack or begin to leak, the groundwater that these communities depend on could be contaminated and unsafe to drink. Do we really trust the fossil fuel industry to regulate itself when they have had so many horrible oil spills in recent history? And these risks are disproportionately placed on communities of color.
20. Landfills produce leachate which is a hazard to the environment and human health.
Leachate is made up of hazardous waste, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. It's basically the liquid run-off from all the junk we toss into a big pile. Although landfills now are designed to limit leachate leaking into the environment, in 2011 a landfill in San Jose was fined $800,000 when leachate was discovered spilling into a local stream.