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Our trash, or municipal solid waste (MSW), is comprised of various items Americans commonly throw away after being used. These include items such as packaging (Styrofoam, plastic wrapping), food waste, grass clippings, sofas and furniture, computers and electronics, refrigerators and appliances, and tires to name the major categories. MSW does not include industrial, hazardous, or construction waste. According to the most recent report from Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash in the year 2012. Here are some facts about the things we throw away:
- In 2007, Americans threw out about 570 billion pounds of municipal solid waste (product packaging, bottles, furniture, clothing, appliances, etc.)
- Home to only 5% of the global population, the U.S. is responsible for more than 40% of the planet’s total waste generation.
- Each American discards an average of more than 1,610 pounds of garbage every year, or approximately 4.4 pounds per person each day, nearly double the 1960 average of 2.7 pounds per day.
- Sources of MSW include residential waste (including waste from apartment houses) and waste from commercial and institutional locations, such as businesses, schools, and hospitals.
- Food waste is the largest component of discards at 21 percent. Plastics comprise about 18 percent; paper and paperboard make up almost 15 percent; and rubber, leather, and textiles account for about 11 percent of MSW discards.
- Many items produced today are designed with cheap parts, to be obsolete and thrown away after a short period of use (coffee makers, mops, vacuums, many electronics). When something breaks, it costs more to replace a part than to just buy a new item.
- Product design also involves a strategy where the “look” of an item changes “in fashion” every few years; which prompts consumers to discard a product because it is no longer in fashion even though it is still completely usable (clothing, shoes, purses, golf clubs, etc.)
- An estimated 26% of the edible food available is wasted at the consumer level, 50% more than in 1970. This waste accounts for roughly 21% of the municipal solid waste stream and represents a loss of $455 per person each year.
- The level of food waste suggests that curbing hunger isn’t a matter of producing more food so much as better preserving and distributing the food currently being produced. As the United Nations noted in its report on world hunger recently, there is actually enough food to feed all seven billion people living in the world today.
- In 1980, food waste accounted for less than 10% of total waste; today, it makes up over a fifth of the country’s garbage. Americans, as it is, now throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal, or glass.
- Food is bio-degradable, so many people think it is “okay” to discard it in our landfills because it disintegrates. However, the reality is we are using resources to make the food: plastic forks, plates, to-go containers, that are part of the food system and all end up in our landfills. Also, as food decays it releases methane into the air and ground, which further pollutes our water cycle.
The Reality: In order to make the “stuff” that we own, we first have to extract raw materials from the planet (metal, wood, water) to produce the stuff. Then the production process (factories) creates the stuff along with waste and pollution that occurs during that process. Then we as consumers buy the products, use them, and discard them. Refurbishing, and being frugal, used to be seen as valuable traits in people; that is not necessarily the case any more. We have become a use-and-throw-away society in the United States. Also, remember that many of our systems are tied together: energy use, water use and quality, preservation of all living things on this planet, and the waste we burn or dump in to large holes in the ground. All of these systems are connected! Remember, we are not saying we should have zero waste, that is unrealistic; however, we can do better! We need to find responsible ways to strike a delicate balance between the needs of humans while preserving this planet for future generations and all other living beings on this planet.