America was built and continues to depend on a culture of consumerism—consumer spending makes up roughly 70% of the United States’ gross domestic product. Nowhere is this insatiable appetite for material things more apparent than in our garbage.
To find out how our trash habits, both individually and as a collective society, have changed over the past 60 years, Pela compiled data from the EPA on municipal waste estimates for various items between 1960 and 2018. For items such as food and yard waste, recycling includes municipal compost disposal.
On individual and collective levels, our generation and treatment of trash reflect our values. Americans generated 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste in a single year—the equivalent of 4.9 pounds of trash per person per day, according to the most recent EPA data. Roughly 30% of this was recycled. The United States produces more waste per capita than any other country in the world, and among developed nations, it is the only country where waste generation outpaces recycling.
Trash generation in the U.S. has significant global implications. As a byproduct of the 2020 Trade Wars, China is no longer buying and importing America’s trash for recycling. According to the most recent Census data, China was importing an average of 429 shipping containers from the U.S. each day full of plastic alone. When you factor in other types of trash sent overseas, the number of containers jumps to 4,000 daily. In return, the U.S. received exports like aluminum, paper, and more plastic.
America’s trash continues to be exported overseas to Africa and Asia, but now to countries less capable of recycling or disposing of this waste in environmentally conscious ways. It is estimated that 51% of these exports are mismanaged, ending up in oceans, rivers, countrysides, and other natural resources.
Landfills are among the top emitters of methane gasses in the U.S. In 1960, 94% of total American waste ended up in our landfills. Regulatory practices like the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and new waste treatment methods brought that number down to 50% in 2018. Some of that can be attributed to better management practices. Recycling and composting rates have increased by about 25 percentage points in the same period.
But it’s not all good news. While disposal methods of combustion and incineration may help alleviate the issue of landfill availability, and while it may also generate electricity, burning trash is significantly contributing to the climate crisis via greenhouse gas emissions. It is a practice facing a reckoning.
In municipalities across the country, particularly low-income areas, it is cheaper to dispose of recyclable trash by landfill or combustion than to recycle it properly, which would require raising taxes for already financially burdened residents.
Individuals alone can no longer solve this problem of excess. And according to a 2020 investigative report by NPR and PBS, when it comes to reducing plastic waste, they never could.
Stakeholders in the plastic industry have knowingly misled consumers about the viability of polymer recycling for decades; in doing so, even more plastic was sold under the promise that a product like a soda bottle will have a long life of reincarnated purpose. This is largely untrue. Polymer recycling is expensive and inefficient. From a business, and more specifically a cost standpoint, it's significantly more advantageous to create virgin plastic instead of recycling what’s already in the trash stream. It is estimated that only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled with the rest ending up in landfills, incinerated, or polluting natural environments.
Being a conscientious consumer is an important starting point, and there is significant room for improvement. For example, individual consumers are responsible for most food waste generated in the United States, totaling between 30% and 40% of all food produced.
But the most significant share of responsibility to reduce waste falls on corporations worldwide. Just 20 companies create more than half of the world’s single-use plastic waste. Fast fashion brands produce tens of thousands of new lines every year, with most pieces discarded as textile waste. Oil companies are turning to plastic production amid a plastic crisis to buoy their profits. These are just a few examples of a global problem. Keep reading to learn more about how America’s garbage habits have changed since 1960.