(hint: more is not better)
The world extracts 100 billion tons of materials from the earth every year, only 8.6 percent of
which is recycled. On average, a US citizen needs about 1000 pounds of materials from the
earth every week, which includes commercial and industrial activity, fossil fuel use and
household consumption. And making and disposing of all this stuff creates 45 billion pounds of
waste of one kind or another every day—or about a third of the world’s trash. (97 percent of
this waste is generated by agriculture, commerce and industry; 3 percent by households.)
Read all about it in The Average American. (Btw, it takes about a truckload of logs to build a
typical US house.)
Every day in the USA, 300 million pounds of food—or about 40 percent of what we produce—goes to waste. This has a big environmental cost: Food production consumes 10 percent of the total US energy budget, uses half of US land, and sucks up 80 percent of freshwater we consume—including from deep aquifers that are fast being depleted.
These are just the things that hold the stuff, but we use a lot of them: 100 billion plastic bags
every year, along with 16 billion paper coffee cups, over 8 billion K-cups (for individual Keurig
coffee servings), and 30 billion water bottles (less than 30 percent are recycled, and those that
are don't come back as new water bottles, but as playground equipment, etc). Option: using
a refillable mug is more efficient than paper or styrofoam after 20 or 127 uses, respectively.
Aluminum cans: The world produces 250 billion of them a year, requiring 3 percent of the
world’s electrical energy. In the US, we toss 45 billion of them into the trash annually, in
spite of a 95 percent energy savings gained by recycling aluminum.
Plastic bags - in the USA, we take 380 billion per year - that's about 1000 per person. (Check out
Four Ways to Reduce Plastic Pollution.) Thinking about switching to cotton bags? You'd have to
use one of these 7000 times to make for the energy and water used and waste created by the bags it replaces (20,000 if it's organic cotton). A paper bag? 43 uses. Our recommendation: scavenge previously used bags from the trash or roadside or recycle containers at the grocery store; wheel your cart out to your car and off-load directly into containers there.
Plastic and your health - the chemicals in plastics can be downright dangerous, so here's a guide to protecting yourself and your
children. (Summary: eat fresh, whole foods; don't heat things in plastic or wash it in really hot water; beware of phthalates in
personal care items; keep a clean house (dust can be a transmitter); swap out vinyl products.)
NCP had a fascinating conversation with Don Kelman of NH Kelman Recycling, a fourth generation business in Cohoes, NY. His company receives recyclables from all around the East Coast. The call was spurred by a question from a HS teacher as to "whether our recyclables really get recycled," given that China no longer takes our trash and our general skepticism about such things.
Mr. Kelman said that while it was much simpler when everything could just be sent to China, they are still finding buyers. The most profitable items are "red metals" such as brass and copper, and also aluminum; plastic is in the middle, and paper commands the lowest return.
It is a single stream, highly-automated process that separates various kinds of materials, with some hand-sorting to catch items that are mis-directed. (The person I spoke with at the local waste hauling company - the ones who send our recyclables from VA to NY - told me that they even hand-sort normal "trash" to pull out the recyclables before they dump it into the landfill. I had no idea.)
He also said that soup cans, etc. don't have to be cleaned before they are put into the recycling: "At the steel mill it will be heated to 3000 degrees - that should take care of the soup residue."
At this time, business is "upper middle" - there have been better and worse times in terms of the profitability.
"This business is not for the faint of heart," he noted.
Check with your local waste management company to see how they handle your material throughput.
The world makes 700 billion pounds of plastic annually, requiring 8 percent of the world’s petroleum
Half of this plastic is for one-time use; one-third of all plastic ends up in the ecosystem
(see How to Give up Plastic on the NCP Reading List)
Toxins & Pollution
Our society generates 34 million metric tons of hazardous waste annually—or 250 pounds per citizen—and 4.1 billion pounds of toxic emissions and other releases, including 400,000 tons of lead and lead compounds. And hormone disrupting chemicals may mean humans will need help reproducing by as soon as 2045. Here's a handy guide to reducing all kinds of pollution into the air & water from our daily
400 million electronic devices are trashed every year in the United States. Recycling rates range from 10 (cell phones) to 18 percent (computers and televisions). This is in spite of the fact that one ton of recycled computers yields more gold than 17 tons of gold ore.
Phones and many other electronic devices also depend on cobalt, much of which is mined in the DR Congo, where human rights violations and child labor are rife. Conflict-free minerals? Think again. Read all about it.
The US imports 20 billion items of clothing annually and the average person in the US discards 75 pounds of clothing per year - a 750 percent increase since 1960. Even items sent to resale shops often end up as rags—or are baled and send abroad to be sold, where they often undermine local textile industries. And producing clothes and shoes creates 8 percent of our global greenhouse gas emissions. Here's a great guide to dressing more sustainably, and what to do and not to do when you're needing to send clothing on to its next life.
Per capita paper consumption in the USA is 700 pounds per year;
total US paper use has more than doubled since 2000.
- Every day, 51,000 trees are cut down just to make paper towels for Americans.
- It takes about 2.5 pounds pound of paper - or around 5 percent of an 8" diameter tree to produce one ream of office paper.
- Two-thirds of US wastepaper is recycled, the highest percentage of any commodity.
- 1 kilo of paper results in approximately 1 kilo of CO2 during its production (1.2 kilo of CO2 for unrecycled, and 0.7 kilo of CO2 for recycled paper).
Less is More!
As consumers, our best response is to not buy so much or waste so much.
set goals—avoid one-time use items; try never to use a clean sheet of paper; use that old t-shirt instead of paper towels
buy fewer, less fashionable, better made clothes OR Thrift Shop clothes OR aim for no new clothing purchases for a year (send savings to Give a Girl a Chance to support tailoring workshops in Congo, Rwanda and South Sudan)
pre-cycle (avoid buying things that can't be recycled)
carry your own stainless steel mug (after 27 uses, it’s a better environmental choice than paper cups - and people will notice!)
Contact local officials to call for recycling containers in all public places, and especially in parks and other “natural” areas. Talk to your school about removing trash cans from classrooms. Encourage your store to give a discount to those bringing their own bags.
Scavenge—dumpsters at construction sites harbor loads of usable items; liberate bottles and cans from trash cans you pass.
Nag legislators to pass bottle bills; campaign for pay-for-trash, recyclables-for-free pick up by local waste companies.
Work with your school, church or place of work to limit disposables, cut down on paper use, and set up recycling stations.
Compost food scraps and yard waste.
Become radically materialistic: value every material item this earth provides and that passes through your hands, treating it like the treasure it is.
Used clothing for sale on the cheap just down the road from an NCP-supported tailoring workshop in Kabumba, Rwanda.