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US tops global waste charts

The world produces over two billion tonnes of solid waste every year, which is at least 3.5 million tons of waste a day, 10 times the amount we produced century ago, according to World Bank researchers. The U.S. is at the top of this list, producing a world-record 250 million tons yearly- roughly 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day. The researchers also estimate that the amount of waste will grow to 11 million tonnes a day by the end of the century if major changes aren’t made.

Per head, the US are also bottom of the pile, as Americans produce three times more than the global average amount of waste per person, including plastic and food.

On recycling, America again is way behind the other developed countries, as they only re-use 35% of their solid waste. Germany is the most efficient country for this, recycling 68% of their used materials. This study has been conducted by Maplecroft, a research firm based in Bath, UK, who have used publicly available data and their own academic research to work out exactly how each country is faring in the midst of this global “plastic crisis.”


Why is the US so far behind?

Municipal solid waste is a waste type made up of everyday items that are discarded by the public. It’s collected by both private companies and the government. While the earth throws away 2.1bn tonnes of this type of rubbish yearly, only 16% is ever recycled, and 46% is disposed of without the intention of reuse.

In this analysis, it states that China and India are over 36% of the world’s population, and account for only 27% of the world’s waste. US citizens produce 773kg per person, which is around 12% of the global total. Their output per person is triple China’s, and seven times more waste than Ethiopia on a person-by-person basis.

Other European countries, including the Netherlands, Switzerland, France and Germany appear more positively on the list. For example, the UK ranks 14th in it, generating only 482kg of household waste per person yearly.

The US is the only developed nation with waste production numbers that are faster than its ability to recycle.

“Where the US is doing badly is the relationship between what it generates and its capacity to recycle,” explains Niall Smith, one of the authors of the report.

“And relative to its high-income peers, that’s where it is performing poorly.”

When it comes to recycling in America, the issue is a very deep-rooted one that seems as involved in the country’s politics as it is in its culture. The political parties all have wildly different viewpoints and the followers of the party feel the same, so there doesn’t seem to be any unison in sight.

“I think you see in survey after survey that infrastructure in the US just isn’t there to provide the recycling option,” said Will Nichols, head of environmental research at Maplecroft.

“A lot of US waste – now that it can’t get shipped to China – is just getting burnt, there just isn’t the investment in place in infrastructure to deal with this problem.”

The mass banning of waste imports in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia is changing the way the world deals with waste, and has caused some panic amongst the countries that relied on them. There have also been tensions within the governments of countries doing the banning, with the Philippines, which sent back 69 shipping containers containing waste to Canada, having some disagreements over where to go next.

“They (Asian countries) don’t want to be the world’s dumping ground anymore,” said Will Nichols.

“There’s a growing middle class who are not happy with levels of pollution and China because of its political situation has the policy levers to address these issues more quickly than others.”

The report suggests there may be a lot of turbulence still to go, especially for businesses. We’re currently in a transition period, and we still have a lot of things to work out.

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