Trash in America: Moving from Destructive Consumption to a Zero-Waste System

Media Releases

How the U.S. can reduce waste to protect public health, the environment, and the global climate

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Americans — who make up just 4 percent of the world’s population — produce more than 30 percent of the planet’s waste, and the results are disastrous for our public health and the environment.

A new report released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund, Frontier Group, and Toxics Action Center, Trash in America:  Moving from Destructive Consumption to a Zero-Waste System, details the effects of overconsumption in America, including water contamination, air pollution, habitat destruction, and global warming. The report also examines how good policies can minimize the proliferation of waste and incentivize reduction, repairs, reuse, recycling, and composting.

“The consequences of our disposable, single-use society are frightening, when you step back and consider the massive public health and environmental effects,” said Alex Truelove, director of U.S. PIRG’s Zero Waste Campaign. “There’s really no reason to handle waste the way we do. The vast majority is recyclable or compostable, and the remainder is repairable or reusable. We have the technology we need to create a zero-waste society, we just need the willpower.”

More than 65 percent of what we throw out in the United States is dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators. Landfills regularly leach hazardous liquids into drinking water supplies and incinerators emit carcinogenic pollutants and neurotoxins into the air. Millions of tons of plastic end up in the oceans too, harming and killing marine life.

To replace those discarded materials, we perpetuate a vicious cycle of mining, logging and clearing land for agriculture. An area the size of Mexico is farmed each year for food that is thrown away worldwide and about 900 million trees are cut down for U.S. paper and pulp mills every year. This system of extracting resources, producing goods, disposing of waste, and transporting materials accounts for 42 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Right now, very few incentives exist for individuals and businesses to change their behavior. It’s often preferable for producers to make temporary and disposable goods so that consumers continually buy more, and if consumers pay a flat fee for garbage regardless of how much they throw out, there are no direct incentives to waste less.

“As a country, the United States currently only recycles and composts 35 percent of disposed materials. But proactive cities, states and even other countries are diverting 80 to 90 percent of materials from landfills and incinerators to recycling and composting — showing that the U.S. can move toward zero waste too,” said Abi Bradford, Policy Analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of the report.

America has the tools to shift away from this harmful system to a “closed-loop” economy that produces zero waste. The report explores these solutions, including mandatory accessible recycling and composting, extended producer responsibility, bans on non-recyclable disposable items, right to repair laws, incentives for material innovation, and opposing the proliferation of landfills and incinerators.

“There is encouraging news,” concludes Truelove. “The actions and policies needed to reach zero waste exist, and they’re being implemented at city, state, country, and corporate levels. We just need to keep moving swiftly in the right direction nationwide.”