How can America tackle its trash problem?

Beyond plastic

Aaron Colonnese

Former Content Creator, Editorial & Creative Team, The Public Interest Network

This blog was authored by Creative Team Intern Lauren Malster.


The average American throws out 1,800 pounds of trash every year. This staggering statistic is another indication of our country’s obsession with “stuff” — and the only way to address the trash crisis is by moving toward a zero-waste economy.

A new U.S. PIRG Education Fund report titled “Trash in America” examines the consequences of waste and recommends actions and policies to mitigate those consequences.


Our current system isn’t working

Currently, the United States has what we would call a “linear material economy.” That means that materials are first extracted, then made into goods, which are later thrown away. It’s a straight line from production to use to trash, and it benefits no one except the companies that sell us all of this “stuff” in the first place.

With the rise of single-use plastic items and the relatively recent adoption of our “use, use, use,” mindset, it’s quickly become clear that a linear material economy is not sustainable. It harms consumers by forcing us to buy the same single-use items over and over again. And it harms our environment and communities when we extract and burn fossil fuels to make, transport and dispose of these items.


There’s a better option

“Trash in America” poses a bold, but attainable, solution to this problem: a zero-waste economy. This system is two-fold in its approach: The first step is to produce less stuff in the first place, and the second is to ensure that all the materials our country currently throws out are reused, recycled or composted. This kind of economic system helps our environment because natural resources are conserved, pollution is reduced, and global warming is curbed.

One way we can achieve the first step of “producing less stuff” is by banning the production and sale of single-use plastics which are totally unnecessary. Then we can shift our focus to the second step of “reusing, recycling or composting” through producer responsibility legislation that would create a waste management system based on accountability.


It doesn’t have to be this way.


PIRG is leading the way

Transitioning to a zero waste-economy requires systemic change — change that we’ll have to achieve one step at a time. It will require standing up to the interests of powerful industries who would prefer we maintained the current status quo.

At PIRG, we are committed to being an integral part of the solution. We’ve helped 11 states ban the production of single-use plastic products and we are pressing forth with producer responsibility legislation that holds plastic producers financially accountable for the waste their products become. We’re also calling on Whole Foods to reduce plastic packaging at its stores, and you can add your voice here.

Finally, we’re leading the charge toward securing American’s Right to Repair, which gives consumers the ability to repair their products themselves or at the repair shop of their choice. It also ensures products are not discarded before they need to be, reducing the release of additional dirty energy spent manufacturing new products.

Read the “Trash in America” report here.


Aaron Colonnese

Former Content Creator, Editorial & Creative Team, The Public Interest Network

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