How much trash does America really produce?

Though it’s home to only 4% of the world’s population, America is responsible for 12% of the planet’s trash. But we can turn the tide on trash in our country by enacting policies and programs that create a zero waste future.

John Stout

The United States produces too much trash. In 2018 alone, America threw out over 292 million tons of municipal solid waste. That’s nearly 1,800 pounds per person every year.

This trash ends up in landfills, is burned in incinerators, or finds its way into our environment, where it litters our parks and beaches, pollutes our oceans, and can harm the wildlife that come into contact with it.

But we can turn the tide on trash in our country. By enacting policies and programs that incentivize a “circular” or “closed-loop” production system, we can create a zero waste future.

What happened:

Though it’s home to only 4% of the world’s population, America is responsible for 12% of the planet’s trash.

That was the finding of the 2021 edition of Environment America Research & Policy Center’s “Trash in America” report, released in September. According to the report, in 2018 over half of the waste — including 91% of plastic — discarded by homes and businesses in the U.S. was ultimately dumped into landfills or burned in incinerators.

Why it matters:

Our country’s system of consumption and disposal is polluting our environment, threatening the health of our wildlife and wreaking havoc on our planet.

An estimated 16.5 million tons of plastic washes into the world’s oceans every year. And the pile grows larger every year. Every 15.5 hours, Americans throw out enough plastic to fill the largest NFL stadium in the country, AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.

Although only used for a few minutes before being discarded, this plastic persists in our natural environment for hundreds of years and can kill marine animals by entangling them, poisoning them or blocking their digestive tracts.

On top of contaminating our water, our wasteful habits also contribute to dangerous air pollution. Emissions from trash-burning incinerators often include heavy metals and mercury, a neurotoxin that impairs brain function, as well as cancer-causing pollutants, such as dioxin — one of the most toxic substances known to humanity.

To add insult to injury, our country’s trash problem is a leading cause of global warming. Roughly 42% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are created during resource extraction, the production of goods, waste disposal, and the transporting of materials.


The big picture:

America’s current system of consumption and disposal incentivize waste.

Because less than one-tenth of plastic gets recycled — the other 91% gets dumped in landfills or incinerated — there’s really only one way to truly protect our planet from this harmful form of waste: Use less of it in the first place.

To keep our environment clean, protect our wildlife, and address the mounting climate crisis, we need to move toward a zero waste future.

Fortunately, we have the tools to shift away from our wasteful, polluting and costly system. To do this, we need to reduce material consumption first and foremost. Next, we need to ensure that we make every effort to reuse, refurbish and repair everything we create. Finally, we’ll need to prioritize recycling or composting all remaining materials.

Choosing wildlife over waste will require a concerted effort from environmentalists and citizen advocates across the country. While this task may be daunting, we need to move beyond single-use plastics and towards a more sustainable, zero-waste future.

That is why Environment America supports banning the sale of single-use plastics, such as polystyrene cups, plastic bags and packaging to reduce pollution in our waters and protect wildlife.

Interested in learning more? Read the full “Trash In America” report.



Photo: For a bird, fish or turtle, it’s easy to mistake a small piece of plastic for food—especially when there are millions of pieces of plastic floating in our rivers and oceans. Credit: Willyam Bradberry via Shutterstock


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