Report examines America’s waste problem over past 3 years

Media Contacts
Sarah Becker

Presents 10-step roadmap to reach a “zero waste” economy

MASSPIRG Education Fund

Boston, MA– Every year, the average American throws out nearly 1,800 pounds of trash. In Massachusetts, that adds up to nearly 6 million tons of waste in the Commonwealth each year. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the trend of increased waste, particularly when it comes to plastic. 

On Thursday, MASSPIRG Education Fund, Frontier Group and other public interest groups released a new report, Trash in America: Moving from destructive consumption towards a zero-waste system. The report examines America’s waste problem over the past three years, and recommends 10 steps the country should take to build a zero waste economy.

“The pandemic turned the world upside-down and inhibited waste reduction efforts. For a time, single-use plastic shopping bags returned to supermarkets, and disposable takeout food containers and packaging from online shopping flooded the waste stream,” said Sarah Becker, Zero Waste Campaign Associate for MASSPIRG. “Despite these setbacks, and despite the efforts by industry groups to keep people from reusing, we’ve already restored some of our lost momentum on waste reduction.” 

Over the course of the past year, four states have passed single-use plastic bans on wasteful products; including single-use plastic bags, foam containers and plastic straws, bringing the total number of states with such laws to 13. In July 2021, Maine passed the first U.S. producer responsibility law, requiring companies to cover the total costs of their wasteful products, including funding for recovery and disposal of those items. With its own producer responsibility bill under consideration this session, Massachusetts could be one of the next states to require greater accountability from producers.  

“Producer responsibility is the next step in waste reduction,” said Adrian Pforzheimer, policy analyst for Frontier Group and report co-author. “By requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for all the packaging and other materials they use and produce, cradle to grave, states can lead the way toward a more responsible and efficient economy.”  

More than one third of U.S. waste is compostable, over half is reusable or recyclable, and some should be eliminated entirely, such as single use plastic bags. As such, the goal of zero waste is an actual policy recommendation, not an aspiration. The report offers 10 steps to reduce waste and improve reduction, reuse, recycling and compost, including:

  1. Require producers to take responsibility for their products throughout each item’s entire life cycle.

  2. Make recycling and composting mandatory, universally accessible and less expensive than garbage disposal.

  3. Require recycled and reused materials in new products, while encouraging businesses and governments to use those products.

  4. Require that all single-use items be easily recyclable or compostable, including packaging, plastic bags and food service ware.

  5. Invest in repair, reuse, recycling and composting facilities and infrastructure (such as deposits on beverage containers) to support a circular economy.

In Massachusetts, a number of bills have already been introduced in the legislature that follow many of these 10 steps. In addition to the aforementioned producer responsibility bill, legislators have submitted bills that would improve existing recycling programs (the updated Bottle Bill, H3289/S2149), let us fix our devices when they break instead of throwing them out (Digital Right to Repair legislation, H341/S166), and ban some single-use plastics (the polystyrene ban, H2263/S1370; the omnibus plastics bill, H569/S579). 

“It’s time that we design products with a zero waste goal at the center, and create the infrastructure to make it easy for everyone, everywhere to reduce, reuse, recycle and compost,” said Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts Director of Clean Water Action. “Massachusetts has an opportunity to do this with the 2030 Solid Waste Master Plan and the time is now,” she added, referring to the MassDEP roadmap that governs waste management in the state. The new plan was expected earlier this year, but has not been released yet. 

The U.S. waste problem has enormous environmental and public health implications beyond the sheer volume of stuff we throw out. Trash incineration emits heavy metals, brain function-impairing mercury and cancer-causing dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals on the planet. Every year, around 16.5 million tons of plastic washes into the world’s oceans. Plastic debris is one of the biggest threats to ocean biodiversity, entangling, poisoning and blocking the digestive tracts of marine animals.

“The communities that house landfills are living each day with the failures of our polluting waste system. All landfills leak, and when they do, drinking water is at risk,” said Sylvia Broude, Executive Director of Community Action Works. “There’s no reason to continue to burn and bury our trash when there are zero waste options that protect our health, environment, and communities.”

“Our waste system will never change until we shift the cost of disposing of products that pollute our air, land, and water from the consumer to the manufacturer,” said Kirstie Pecci, Director of Conservation Law Foundation’s Zero Waste Project. “It is not fair for cities and towns to bear exorbitant disposal costs for products that corporations purposefully design to be unrecyclable and that are harmful to our environment. This report will mobilize more people into pushing for zero waste solutions.”

America, and the Bay State’s waste problem also contribute to climate change. When resource extraction, production, disposal and transportation are all taken into account, the stuff that becomes waste in America contributes 42% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions

“It’s clear that to build a sustainable future, we have to fight our trash problem,” said Becker. “This report provides the steps to achieving zero waste, now we have to act on them.”

MASSPIRG collaborates with Clean Water Action MA, the Conservation Law Foundation, and Community Action Works on zero waste policies as part of the Zero Waste MA Coalition.