Compared to the rest of the world, the waste and recycling stats in the U.S. just can’t compete. Although the U.S. is just 4 percent of the world’s total population, the country produces 12 percent of the total solid waste of 2.1 billion tons per year. When researchers from the global risk firm Verisk Maplecroft compared the numbers, they found that the U.S. lags behind other developed nations in terms of its capacity to handle and recycle waste.
The average American generates 1,700 pounds of trash every year, including 234 pounds of plastic waste. That’s three times more than what the Chinese produce and seven times more than Ethiopians. But the problem isn’t just waste generation — what happens to all the waste is where the U.S. is embarrassingly behind the times.
“Where the U.S. is doing badly is the relationship between what it generates and its capacity to recycle,” said study author Niall Smith. “And relative to it’s high income peers, that’s where it is performing poorly.”
On average, the U.S. is able to recycle 35 percent of all solid waste produced. Germany, in the lead for recycling efficiency, is able to recycle 68 percent of all waste.
According to the researchers, the U.S. lacks the proper infrastructure to sustainably handle the waste and process the recycling and needs to find new places to send its plastic waste, with China refusing to accept more and the Philippines sending waste ships back at its shores. Much of the plastic in the U.S. is still burned in incinerators rather than recycled.
While increased recycling and recycling infrastructure is paramount, Smith argues that there is already enough plastic in the world to cause a massive crisis for human and ecological health and that recycling is not enough.
“There’s too much focus on recycling being the kind of silver bullet solution, which it is not,” Smith said. Instead, Americans need to focus on transforming into a zero-waste culture.
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