Americans Love Their Trash and Hate to Recycle, Report Finds

‘Murica!
Photo: AP

The world has a trash problem, and a new report out Tuesday reminds us just how much Americans contribute. Turns out that while we create the most waste in the world, we’re one of the worst countries at recycling it.

The report—published by Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk analysis group—looks at the waste generation and recycling performance of 194 countries, including China, Australia, and Russia. Every year, we humans produce some 2.1 billion tons of solid waste. As the report notes, that’s enough trash to fill 822,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. In short, a lot of trash. We’re recycling only 16 percent of this waste, with another 46 percent “disposed of unsustainably.”

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The United States, in particular, has a lot of work to do: We each generate, on average, 1,704 pounds of trash a year. That amounts to 12 percent of the world’s total waste, according to the report, even though the U.S. is home to a mere 4 percent of the world’s population. In fact, individuals in the United States create more than three times as much trash as those in China.

And just 35 percent of our waste gets recycled. Germany, on the other hand, recycles 68 percent of its waste.

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The issue of our outsized trash footprint has become even more relevant as countries struggle to figure out where to send all their plastic waste. China banned all plastic imports at the end of 2017, and since then loads of plastic trash has been ping-ponging around the world, some of it winding up in countries that struggle to manage their own waste. Malaysia is now stepping up to return mislabeled and contaminated plastics. Countries are starting to have enough of our privileged asses sending our trash their way.

Now, it isn’t just an American problem. The Netherlands, Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Australia, and France are also bad when it comes to their per capita waste production, per the report.

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But the U.S. stands out both in terms of the sheer amount of junk we produce and our inability to handle it all ourselves. As the report authors note, “The US is the only developed nation whose waste generation outstrips its ability to recycle, underscoring a shortage of political will and investment in infrastructure.”

They ain’t wrong about the lack of political will. The money and resources are there, unlike in many of the world’s developing countries. However, we Americans love to consume. We’ll be reminded of that this holiday break when all the red solo cups and plastic cutlery come out during our Fourth of July celebrations.

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Maybe skip the plastic and wash the damn dishes.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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