Watching Our Wastelines

For years, it's been garbage gospel that the average American creates 4.4 pounds of trash a day. Real-world data compiled from actual landfills and waste haulers reveals much bigger figures.

According to the fascinating new book Garbology, Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, researchers have found the actual amount of solid waste produced each day in the U.S. is more like 7.1 pounds per person. Add it up and that's 204,000 total pounds produced over every single American lifetime. Break it down and among other things you find 28 billion pounds of food, enough plastic film to shrink-wrap Texas, and sufficient steel to build Manhattan from scratch literally going to waste each year.

Only around a fourth of all this collective crapola gets recycled or composted. Nearly 70% is sent to landfills. (The remainder, for better or worse, is burned for energy.) Compare that garbage carnage to countries like Belgium, which sends just 4% of its trash to the dump or Germany, which doesn't send any at all. The fact is, with just 5% of the world's population, we're producing 25% of its waste. How trashy is that?

My garbage can flips its lid just thinking about it, but ideas like these will help us waste a whole lot less:

Let it rot. The EPA estimates that about 27% of our garbage isn't garbage at all but food and yard waste that can be easily composted to build soil and fertilize gardens. Start composting and you'll instantly cut your garbage output by a quarter.

Dispose of the disposables. Our lives are filled with throwaway items for which reusable alternatives exist. Before you buy one, ask yourself if better, less wasteful options exist. They might be a tad more expensive up front, but those disposable items we're always replacing cost more than we realize.

Buy less stuff. Ask yourself: Do you actually need the item? Will you use it a lot? Can you rent or borrow it instead? Is there something smaller and/or more durable that can be used in its place? Or do you already own a decent substitute? You'll be surprised at the money these questions can save and the waste they'll prevent!

Know how much you need before you shop. Whether its hardware or paint, food or medicine, crunch the numbers beforehand and buy only the amount you actually require.

Purge the packaging. Avoid single-serving foods and buy items in bulk whenever feasible (Beware of “bulk packages” that consist of individually-packaged items bundled together in further packaging!) Look for items that are sold in the containers they'll live in, not packaged in an outer shell like a bottle that comes in a box. When you buy a packaged product, choose the least packaged option. In general, larger sizes and concentrated products use less packaging, and bags are better than boxes, which are better than bottles. That said, remember that recyclability trumps all, and the best option will always be the one you can recycle.

Leave gimmicks where they lie. Pump toothpastes, disposable toilet brushes, electric air fresheners, coffee in pods, and other wasteful items are more about marketing flim-flam than anything else.

Buy durable goods carefully. You generally get what you pay for when it comes to big ticket items like appliances. So buy the best model you can afford. It will last longer than cheaper models, and save money and waste in the long run.

Become a righteous recycler. Check all packaging before you buy. If it can't be recycled locally, look for alternatives that can be. Close the recycling loop by buying things made from the highest amounts of post-consumer recycled materials. And look beyond paper, plastic, and glass to your entire waste stream. Earth911 offers a guide to recycling almost anything. The National Center for Electronics Recycling can help you recycle your tech.

Don't throw it away, give it away! Organizations like Freecycle will connect you to people who'll take your cast-offs so the garbage man doesn't have to.

Strategies like these dramatically cut down on our trash. At my house, they've dropped our landfill contribution to about 33% of all the waste we produce. Not bad, but there's lots of room for improvement. Let's clean up our waste streams and make those improvements together.

For more information about waste reduction, visit the GrassRoots Recycling Network and You can also learn more at Use Less Stuff.

top photo:

bottom photo: Fruggo

written by:

the Inkslinger

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!

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