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More Waste, Less Recycling in U.S.

Other developed nations produce relatively less solid waste and recycle more of it, report says

The U.S. produces more than its fair share of solid waste but lacks the political will to deal with it effectively, according to a new report from a consulting firm specializing in risk analysis. Photo: Olle Johnson / CC BY-SA / Flickr]

The U.S. represents 4% of the world’s population but produces 12% of municipal solid waste and recycles less of it than other developed countries, according to a new report from the consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft. The report said it compared data on waste generation and recycling for 194 countries and found the U.S. is the top producer of trash but has the worst record of any industrialized nation for managing it.

The report, described in an article at The Guardian, comes at a time when the world is facing a growing solid-waste problem, particularly with plastics. Globally, the Verisk Maplecroft report said, more than 2.1 billion tons of municipal solid waste are generated annually—enough to fill 822,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Only 16% of it is recycled.

“The gulf between what we produce and what we recycle is creating profound challenges for governments and populations,” the report says. “But it is the companies producing large volumes of waste that may find themselves footing the bill if they do not find sustainable solutions to drive a more circular economy.”

The Waste Generation Index that the company devised for its comparisons measured per capita rates of municipal solid waste, plastic, food, and hazardous waste production. Each person in the U.S. was responsible for 773 kg (1704 lb.) of municipal solid waste annually, adding up to some 239 million tons.

In contrast, India and China have more than 36% of the world’s population but generate 27% of global municipal waste.

Other highly developed countries also produce a disproportionate amount of waste, including the Netherlands, Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

The report was critical of low recycling rates in the U.S. “Given the U.S. is the world’s largest economy it may not be surprising that it is one of the largest producers of household waste,” the report notes. “But what is significant is its lack of commitment to offsetting its waste footprint.”

Germany’s recycling rate of 68% is nearly double that of the U.S., which suffers from a “shortage of political will and investment in infrastructure.” A ban on importing waste plastic in China and a number of developing countries has made the problem more pronounced.

In March, The Guardian reported that environmental groups at a United Nations conference in Kenya claimed the U.S. was responsible for blocking global efforts to reduce plastic pollution. Norway, Japan, and Sri Lanka had proposed legally binding agreements aimed at reducing plastic litter in the oceans. Others favored a resolution to phase out single-use plastic.

Instead, a number of non-binding proposals were adopted, which several environmental groups said were inadequate given the scale of the problem. One of them was the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C. It issued its own report on the global environmental impact of manufacturing and incinerating plastics earlier this year.

-Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.

4 Comments

  1. John Clark | | #1

    IMO here is a good graph because it includes GDP per capita and consequently is much better at comparing countries based upon their prosperity. For example Germany looks really bad compared to the rest of the Europe and the US, but their country is the most industrialized of the EU and predominately an export economy.

    https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/per-capita-plastic-waste-vs-gdp-per-capita

  2. User avater
    Jon R | | #2

    Looks like an example of being able to find data to support anything you want. For example:

    "A recent study states that Canadians produce more garbage per capita than any other country on earth."
    https://www.crcresearch.org/solutions-agenda/waste

    1. Antonio Oliver | | #3

      In response to:
      "Looks like an example of being able to find data to support anything you want."

      Different terminology is being used. One source normalizes by GDP for some reason and considers plastic waste only. Another source focuses on Canadian "garbage" in total, while the source quoted for the GBA article considers "municipal solid waste," which can have varying meanings depending on locale. For example, where I live all "municipal solid waste," is sorted
      to remove metal and compostable vegetation AFTER curbside collection, before going to a landfill or incinerator. It's unclear whether the weight considered here would be before or after the sorting in my location.

      BTW, there is separate collection for yard waste, plastic, paper, glass, and other recyclables. Apparently, not everyone bothers to separate.

    2. ToddMedema | | #4

      There's a lot of ways to slice to data to pick out 1st place vs 2nd place, but the point still stands: we produce too much garbage of all types. Not only does that garbage clog landfills and litter streets, but it required significant emissions to produce, that're now wasted after a single use. (Plastics are especially bad since, even if we did recycle them, the polymers can only be recycled a couple of times before breaking down - unlike metals, which can be recycled near-infinitely)

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