Waste: By the numbers
In 1990 the average American was sending 3.1 pounds of trash to landfills each day. On the brighter side, today that figure has been reduced to 2.5 pounds but only because the recycling rates have doubled in the past 17 years. However, it is fair to say that our amount of trash has not been reduced at all, only re-distributed and recycled which still costs us in time and energy. Roughly 1.5 pounds of garbage is now either recycled or composted while the remaining .6 pounds is incinerated.
Packaging is far and away the largest source of household waste. Between the plastic, glass, paper and metal that accompanies your products from the manufacturer to your doorstep, one third of these packaging materials end up in your garbage can. An additional quarter of your receptacle is filled with nondurable products, such as shoes, newspaper, etc. The remaining space is filled with an array of major items such as appliances, yard waste and food scraps.
Of the 4.5 pounds produced daily per person, before recycling statistics are considered, the following statistics indicate how it breaks down:
Paper-34.2%- Which is mainly consisted of corrugated boxes and newspapers. Nearly half of that total ends up getting recycled.
Food Scraps-11.9%- About a quarter of the food we consume and prepare gets tossed into the garbage and only 2% of that is composted.
Plastics-11.8%- This can be found in seemingly every product these days, but the strongest contributor is packaging. All in all, only 5.7% of plastic garbage is recycled.
Yard Waste-13.1%- From grass to leaves and tree trimmings much of this ends of in the dump or incinerated.
Wood-5.7%- Mostly old furniture, wood crates and pallets takes the cake here; a small portion is chipped into mulch.
Metals-7.6%- Durable goods such as appliances are the biggest source of the metal waste despite a strong 45% recycling rate for cans aluminum is also a significant source.
Glass-5.2%- The bottles and jars account for some odd 86% of discarded glass of that only one quarter is recycled and the rest is glass from electronics and furniture.
Rubber, Textiles, Leather-7.3%- Mainly clothes, carpets, shoes and tires.
Other-3.4%- Half of this includes disposable diapers, along with bits and pieces of concrete, dirt and stone.
Inorganic Waste: Consumer packaging bellies up 31 percent of the municipal waste stream, far more than any of the products that is contained within its wasteful enclosure. To be more specific, this represents more than 77 million tons of bottles, cartons, cans, bags and wrappers. Although polystyrene plastics are recyclable, the energy cost in producing it makes it not a very practical form of packaging. The smartest solution to reduce your waste on this front is merely to avoid them in the first place. Municipal data neglects to recognize the huge source of waste from construction/demolition debris. This amount could add up to 2.8 pounds of waste per person per day.
Organic Waste: Given the fact that organic materials make up nearly two-thirds of waste many lean to believe that it might be a good thing. Since a discarded carrot or apple will simply biodegrade itself into the earth’s soils anyways right? Actually, this is not the case, when University of Arizona anthropologist Bill Rathje drilled into landfills he found 40-year-old newspapers and perfectly preserved food. The reason for this is the lack of oxygen to promote the degradation, without the O’s the rotting foods and products produce methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The solution? Cut back on paper products and plan meals more carefully. Each year Americans throw out 25 percent of their food, equivalent to 96 billion pounds of leftovers. Composting can help take care of the remaining food scraps.
Hazardous Waste: This is a difficult category to monitor, the EPA estimates up to 100 pounds per year is discarded discreetly by every American. The growing concern is the electronic waste since each American is likely to discard a cell phone once per year and a computer every two years. These items have toxics among their constituent parts such as lead, mercury and brominated flame retardants. Look for the final chapter to this three-part series soon, the guide to the solutions, strategies, and companies taking a stand against waste.