New Study Reveals Americans Throw Out Twice as Much Trash as Predicted

A new Yale-led study reveals that we’re disposing of more than twice as much solid waste as we thought we were here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Published on Sept. 21 in the Nature Climate Change journal and co-authored by Yale professor Julie Zimmerman and University of Florida professor Timothy G. Townsend, this study found that based on landfill measurements instead of government estimates, analysis of figures revealed that America tosses five pounds of trash per person per day.

Let that soak in for a moment. Five pounds of garbage. Per day. Per person. But it gets better, and by better, I mean worse.

According to the study, 262 million tons of municipal solid waste was disposed of in the United States in 2012 –a 115 percent increase over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) estimate of 122 million tons for the same year. The new estimate also surpasses the World Bank’s projections of municipal solid waste generation for 2025.

So why is there such a discrepancy in the quantity of disposed of waste between what the federal government estimates vs. what this new study claims? Jon Powell, a Ph.D. student in Yale’s Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering and lead author of the paper explains, “A key difference is in the methodology.”

Here’s more about that from Yale’s Office of Public Affairs & Communications:

The EPA has traditionally published waste generation and disposal figures using a “materials flow analysis” method, based on information from industry associations, businesses, the U.S. Census, and the Department of Commerce — indirectly indicating how much will be disposed of in landfills, while the Yale researchers use a more direct method based on numbers reported by the operators of more than 1,200 municipal solid waste landfills.

Since landfills weren’t required to report their operational data until 2010, the study used four years of available data, through 2013. Though there have been other studies before which have revealed similar results concerning underestimated waste disposal estimates by the EPA, the Yale researchers are confident that their findings represent the most accurate to date.

The AP claims, “Three outside experts said they trust the Yale numbers more than the EPA’s,” while Powell says, “I feel that it’s a superior number to previous estimates, and the key is that we can use our method every year going forward to more accurately track our progress towards more sustainable materials management.”

That’s the hope, anyway. The Yale researchers also used their collected data to examine how effective landfills are at capturing landfill gas. They found that closed landfills were 17 percent more efficient at capturing gas than operating landfills, and that 91 percent of all landfill methane emissions come from open sites, which is presumably useful information to have for future landfill site planning purposes.

This is significant because, as the study reveals, “the decomposition of municipal waste in landfills is considered one of the largest sources of human-produced methane emissions in the world, accounting for approximately 18% of domestic emissions.”

How did we get here, and where do we go from here?

While it’s not surprising to hear that Americans are throwing out more than twice what the EPA estimates, it’s disturbing nonetheless. In terms of how we got here, there are plenty of possibilities, and the most likely answer is some combination of them.

Here are some possibilities:

We throw out tons of food, even though some go hungry every day.

We should recycle more, because as the AP points out, “If Powell’s data is correct, Americans aren’t recycling as much as authorities thought.”

Excessive packaging is another obvious culprit. After devouring restaurant take-out, you’re likely stuck with a bag and multiple containers, not to mention napkins, utensils and condiments you barely even touched. You go to the grocery store these days and find cucumbers individually plastic-wrapped, or four artichokes in a giant plastic container.

Lots of wasteful packaging makes its way to consumers under the guise of convenience, but convenience doesn’t necessarily equate to better, because it often comes at a cost, and I’m not talking about the monetary kind.

Exhibit A: K-cups — the single-serving disposable coffee pods that make it quick and easy to prepare one cup at a time. The problem lies in what it leaves behind; a little, unrecyclable plastic cup that after just one use, is destined to be tossed in the garbage, and boy does that garbage add up: Enough K-cups were produced in 2013 to wrap around the equator 10 times.

They’re a shining example of how the allure of convenience has enabled this disposable monstrosity to penetrate millions of homes and office buildings, even those whose inhabitants proclaim to be “green.” It’s important to embrace the reality that what might seem convenient in the moment may be far from it in the long run. Those choices could likely have lasting, negative and permanent effects on our planet.

The K-cup inventor himself admitted that he created an environmental monster with those disposable darlings of the coffee world. And yet Americans continue to drink them up by the millions.

The Yale study makes the point that a big part of waste is construction and demolition debris, which is not surprising if you’ve ever watched HGTV and seen what they do to those fixer uppers. Captured on camera is the excitement of demo day and how empowering it is to hack apart and toss away old cabinetry, sinks and toilets, some of which could’ve easily been recycled or re-used in some capacity. Hurling what was a perfectly functioning toilet out of a window and into a dumpster, only to have it crash to pieces, is not the message the American public needs to hear.

When my family and friends helped to demolish our kitchen before a major renovation, I asked them to carefully remove two corner cabinets instead of tearing them apart. It took them a little longer to pull off, but they did it and we successfully delivered them down the street to the local nonprofit recycled building materials seller, along with some doors and other random things. We also kept and used some of our demo waste—we made planter boxes out of leftover pieces of wood, a spice rack from old lathe, and the list goes on.

Perhaps we need to be looking at the recycling requirements in the building industry to chip away at our inflated construction waste rates, and as individuals of course we should always be thinking creatively about what to do with things before we toss them out.

The landfill should be the last resort for all unwanted things in our lives, not the first.

Tossing out broken but fixable things to make room for shiny new ones is another bad habit many Americans fall victim to. Last week my husband and I went online to learn how to fix our own washing machine. Sure, we could afford a new machine, but we didn’t knee-jerk into buying one. Instead, I thought about that article I wrote a while back about the massive quantity of gadget waste that’s building up in the world, and after some bumps, swears and squabbles along the way, we got our machine going again. I have to say; hearing the tumbling sound of revival was music to our ears.

If those Yale researchers are correct and we’re really throwing out twice as much garbage as we should be, then shame on us. Given all the information out there about what it means to live environmentally responsible lives, if anything we should be tossing out less, not more, than predicted.

We can, and should, all being doing what we can to limit the amount of trash we contribute to landfills. Consumerism has its grip on many Americans who spend their time shopping for whatever will nourish their insatiable hunger for more stuff. It is a void that can never be filled, but even if it could, at some point we simply won’t have enough space to even try. Or will we?

According to the AP, Thomas Kinnaman, a Bucknell University professor who studies the economics of solid waste and recycling, believes “the findings don’t matter much, because landfills have plenty of room to expand,” referring to Powell’s findings that for every year’s worth of trash filled on average in the United States, landfills add 2.7 years’ worth of capacity.

Even if that’s true, it shouldn’t allow us to continue gorging on stuff, throwing out what can be re-used, and behaving as if our planet is infinite and will last forever, because that is not a given.

So where we should go from here? I suggest that we all take a few minutes and watch the classic 2007 classic short film, The Story of Stuff. If you’ve seen it before, then watch it again. If you’ve never seen it, then the next time you find 21 ½ minutes to spare, check it out. It’s eye opening and based on the new Yale study, apparently we could all use the refresher.

Beyond that, you tell me. What should we be doing so the next study finds that Americans tossed out 50 percent LESS garbage than predicted? Wouldn’t that be something? Share your ideas in the comments.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

83 comments

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla1 years ago

The consumerism in the US need to stop, period.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Ricky T.
Ricky T2 years ago

The amount we waste is extortionate, there should be a worldwide compulsory recycling movement & initiative.

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Miriam VOICEfortheVOICELE

Thanks very much for posting! Unbelievable!

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vijay k Bansal
Vijay Bansal2 years ago

Unfortunate but so true. See those huge trash cans every week, overflowing with trash generated by ONLY 2 people in the house.
We have to look at and correct our own selves to save and preserve this planet. Don't look at governments

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Carole R.
Carole R2 years ago

I'm not surprised at all. We are a throw away society.

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Pablo B.
.2 years ago

The waste can be transformed into energy. That is the next step. Many cities in the world and they are doing it.

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M Quann
M Q2 years ago

I'm sure the US is not alone in this, it is a problem!

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Corey Brideau
Corey Brideau2 years ago

Here is an out of the box idea stop being a mindless consumer

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell2 years ago

Thank you

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