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Napa Valley Garbage Company, Landfill For Sale

America was built and continues to depend on a culture of consumerism – consumer spending accounts for approximately 70% of US gross domestic product. Nowhere is this insatiable appetite for material things more apparent than in our garbage cans.

To find out how our waste habits, both individually and as a collective society, have changed over the past 60 years, Pela compiled data from the EPA on municipal waste estimates for various items between 1960 and 2018. For items such as food and yard waste, recycling includes disposal of municipal compost.

At individual and collective levels, our generation and treatment of waste reflects our values. Americans generated 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste in a single year, the equivalent of 4.9 pounds of waste per person per day, according to the most recent data from the EPA. About 30% of it was recycled. The United States produces more waste per capita than any other country in the world, and among developed countries, it is the only country where waste generation exceeds recycling.

The generation of waste in the United States has significant global implications. As a byproduct of the 2020 trade wars, China is no longer buying and importing American trash for recycling. According to the most recent census data, China imported an average of 429 shipping containers from the United States filled with plastic only every day. When you take into account other types of waste sent abroad, the number of containers increases to 4,000 per day. In return, the United States received exports such as aluminum, paper, and more plastic.

American waste continues to be exported to Africa and Asia, but now to countries less able to recycle or dispose of this waste in an environmentally sound manner. An estimated 51% of these exports are mismanaged and end up in oceans, rivers, countryside and other natural resources.

Landfills are among the biggest emitters of methane gas in the United States In 1960, 94% of all American waste ended up in our landfills. Regulatory practices such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 and new waste treatment methods have reduced this number to 50% in 2018. Some of this can be attributed to better management practices. Recycling and composting rates increased by about 25 percentage points over the same period.

But it’s not all good news. While burning and incineration disposal methods can help alleviate the problem of landfill availability, and although they can also generate electricity, waste burning contributes significantly to the climate crisis via greenhouse gas emissions. It is a practice in the face of a settling of scores.

In municipalities across the country, especially low-income areas, it is cheaper to dispose of recyclable waste by landfilling or burning than to recycle it properly, which would require raising taxes on already financially burdened residents.

Individuals alone can no longer solve this problem of excess. And according to a 2020 investigative report from NPR and PBS, when it comes to reducing plastic waste, they never could.

Plastics industry stakeholders have knowingly misled consumers about the viability of polymer recycling for decades; in doing so, even more plastic has been sold under the promise that a product like a soda bottle will have a long life for a reincarnated purpose. This is largely false. Recycling polymers is expensive and inefficient. From a business perspective, and more specifically from a cost perspective, it is significantly more beneficial to create virgin plastic instead of recycling what is already in the waste stream. It is estimated that only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, with the rest ending up in landfills, incinerated or polluting natural environments.

Being a conscientious consumer is an important starting point, and there is significant room for improvement. For example, individual consumers are responsible for most of the food waste generated in the United States, totaling between 30% and 40% of all food produced.

But the biggest share of the responsibility for reducing waste lies with businesses around the world. Just 20 companies create more than half of the world’s single-use plastic waste. Fast fashion brands produce tens of thousands of new lines every year, with most of the pieces thrown away as textile waste. Oil companies are turning to plastic production amid a plastic crisis to prop up their profits. These are just a few examples of a global problem. Keep reading to learn more about how American trash habits have changed since 1960.