Environment Illinois Research and Education Center
THE UNITED STATES produces too much waste. Natural resources are continually extracted to produce goods that are used in the U.S. – often only briefly – before they are thrown into landfills, incinerators or the natural environment. This system of consumption and disposal results in the waste of precious resources and pollution that threatens our health, environment and the global climate.
Because the costs of this system fall on society at large – not on the producers and consumers who drive it – there are few direct incentives for change.
To protect public health and the environment, conserve natural resources and landscapes, and address the mounting crisis of climate change, America should move toward an economic system characterized by zero waste. To achieve that goal, federal, state and local governments should enact policies and programs that incentivize shifting to a “circular” or “closed-loop” economy in which less is consumed and all materials are reused, recycled and composted in a continuous cycle.
The U.S. produces more than 12% of the planet’s trash*, though it is home to only 4% of the world’s population.
• In 2018 alone, the U.S. threw out over 292 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) – the materials discarded by homes, businesses and institutions, such as universities and libraries.
• Americans throw out 4.9 pounds of trash per person every day – that’s nearly 1,800 pounds of materials per American every year.
• The majority of waste (62%) discarded by homes and businesses in the U.S. is ultimately dumped into landfills or burned in incinerators.
More than 91% of plastic was landfilled or incinerated in 2018.
Every 15.5 hours, Americans throw out enough plastic to fill the largest NFL stadium in the country, AT&T Stadium (the home of the Dallas Cowboys), and the pile grows larger every year.
Our trash leads to even more waste than we see. The products we use and dispose of are created by processes like mining and manu- facturing, which generate far more, and far more dangerous, waste.
America’s garbage largely consists of goods that are used only briefly.
Over 28% of all U.S. garbage is packaging, amounting to 82 million tons of material that is typically thrown out after a product is purchased or used.
Nondurable goods, such as clothing and newspaper, account for 17.3% of U.S. garbage, with yard trimmings (12.1%) and food (21.6%) accounting for a substantial share as well.
The remainder (19.5%) of what homes and businesses throw out is made up of durable goods, like furniture and appliances, many of which could be repaired or repurposed, or have their materials recycled for other uses.
America’s linear material economy, where materials are extracted, made into goods, and disposed of, is a one-way street that creates massive environmental and public health impacts.
• Global warming pollution: Roughly 42% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are created in the process of extracting resources, producing goods, disposing of waste, and transporting materials at every stage of that process.
• Air pollution: Incinerator emissions include heavy metals and mercury, a neurotoxin that impairs brain function, as well as cancer-causing pollutants like dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known to humanity. The extraction and production activities that support the linear material economy also cause environmental degradation, air pollution and water contamination.
• Water contamination: Leachate from landfills can escape into the environment and threaten drinking water supplies.
• Ocean pollution: An estimated 16.5 million tons of plastic washes into the world’s oceans every year.14 This plastic persists for hundreds of years and can kill marine animals by entangling them, poisoning them or blocking their digestive tracts. Marine debris is considered one of
the great threats to biodiversity.
• Wasted natural resources: It would take 321 million trees to produce the amount of paper that was landfilled or burned in the U.S. in 2018 alone.17 Thirty million acres of cropland, roughly the area of Pennsylvania, is farmed each year for food that is wasted in the U.S.
America’s system of consumption and disposal encourages and incentivizes waste.
Society bears most of the costs and burdens of waste – not the producers and consumers who create it – removing incentives for change.
• Producers have few direct incentives to build products to last, to make them easy to repair, to use less packaging, or to make their goods or packaging easy to reuse, recycle or compost. In fact, it is often beneficial for producers to make goods intended to be used once or only temporarily so that consumers continually buy more.
• Producers, distributors and waste haulers have a stake in the U.S. waste system continuing to operate as it does now and have lobbied against changes.
A zero-waste economy is possible.
Nearly all of America’s trash could be composted and recycled.
• Food waste and yard trimmings make up more than a third (33.7%) of U.S. garbage and are organic and easily compostable, but the U.S. lacks sufficient infrastructure.
• Paper and paperboard, some of which could be composted and the rest of which could be recycled, make up nearly a quarter (23.1%) of America’s trash.
• Metals, glass, and plastics – another quarter (25.2%) of America’s garbage – are all readily recyclable, although many types of plastic are not.
• Rubber, wood, leather, and textiles make up the remainder (15.1%) of America’s waste and can also be recycled into useful products.24 Textile recycling has made great advances in recent years.
U.S. cities and states, as well as other countries, are already taking strides toward creating zero waste.
• Eleven states have passed bans on single-use plastic bags, seven states have passed bans on expanded polystyrene containers, and more are considering bans on other single-use foodware, packaging and more.
• Several states have banned recyclables from landfills, and in 2020 Vermont became the first to ban all compostable materials from landfills.
• Thanks to a variety of policies and programs, such as making manufacturers responsible for disposing of packaging, Germany now recycles 67% of household waste.
• In July 2021, Maine became the first state in the U.S. to pass a law establishing producer responsibility for packaging and paper products, shifting responsibility for the costs of recycling away from the taxpayer and onto the corporations responsible for producing those products.
America has the tools to shift away from this wasteful, polluting and costly linear system to a circular material economy that produces zero waste, conserves natural resources, and limits pollution and global warming emissions.
Efforts to reduce waste should prioritize reducing material consumption first and foremost; reusing, refurbishing and repairing everything possible; and recycling or composting all remaining materials.
By taking the following steps, the U.S. can incentivize the shift to a circular economy in which zero waste is created. These steps can be promoted through a variety of policies and programs at the local, state and national levels.
1. Set a goal to achieve zero waste.
2. Require producers to take responsibility for their products during their entire life cycle.
3. Price goods to reflect the environmental and public health impacts of their production.
4. Make recycling and composting mandatory, universally accessible and less expensive than garbage disposal.
5. Require that goods be built to last and easy to repair, reuse, recycle or compost.
6. Ban the sale of single-use items that are not easily recyclable or compostable, including packaging, plastic bags and food service ware.
7. Invest in repair, reuse, recycling and composting facilities to support a circular economy.
8. Require producers to use recycled and reused materials in new products, and encourage businesses and governments to set procurement standards for recycled materials.
9. As waste is eliminated, ensure that all remaining waste is disposed of safely.
10. Oppose the construction, expansion and subsidization of landfills, incinerators and plastic-to-fuel conversion facilities marketed as “chemical recycling.”