The Math of Trash: A Music Video

Includes animated video

How much trash do you produce in a day? How about a year?

It adds up a lot faster than you might  think — especially in the United States, which collectively generates more garbage — or municipal waste — than any other nation on earth. With only five percent of the world’s population, America creates roughly 25 percent of the planet’s waste. On average, each American produces more than seven pounds of trash a day (or 2,555 pounds a year) according to a recent Columbia University survey. That’s a big pile of garbage, and it’s the cause of some unsettling consequences. But it’s also great fodder for a catchy animated music video, composed by the folks at Explainer Music for The Lowdown.

By the Numbers

160 million tons a year 

The approximate amount of garbage that ends up in U.S. landfills annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency reports that Americans produce roughly 250 million tons of trash a year, about one-third of which is recycled or composted. That’s equivalent to the weight of more than 91 million cars (assuming average car weight of 1.75 tons)! An alternate calculation, as reported in the annual BioCycle/Columbia University survey, estimates total municipal waste at closer to 390 million tons.

7 pounds a day

The approximate amount of trash (compost and recycling included) generated by every man, woman and child in the United States.  That’s according to Edward Humes, author of Garbology, who uses data compiled from the  BioCycle/Columbia University survey.  In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Humes explains that the EPA estimate of 4.4 lbs per person per day is a pretty dramatic underestimate:

“Every landfill weighs the stuff that comes in, [but] the EPA doesn’t do that … They calculate how much stuff we manufacture in the U.S. and what its life expectancy is, and they crunch these numbers and they sort of predict how much trash will be thrown away. And unfortunately, it vastly underestimates the trash that we make.”

184 percent .. 

more trash is produced in the United States today than was generated in 1960, according to EPA data.

22 billion pounds

Amount of carbon dioxide created each year by America’s garbage trucks. Annually, garbage trucks use about one billion gallons of diesel fuel, according to a report by environmental education group Inform Inc. Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that burning a gallon of diesel creates more than 22 pounds of CO2.   

trash wheel70 million pounds

The amount of paper and cardboard trash generated each year in the United States. According to the EPA, paper and cardboard comprised 28 percent of all municipal waste in 2011, more than any other material. Packaging materials, in general, made up the most trash.

80 percent …

of San Francisco’s total waste that is now recycled or composted, and therefore diverted from landfill (that’s according to the city, although the exact rate has been challenged). The city leads the nation in waste diversion.

Two-thirds …

of all U.S. recycling  gets shipped to China, according to trade group Recycling International. As Edward Humes explains in his Fresh Air interview:

“They’re finding value in material we’re not able to find value in and paying relatively little for it — shipping it immense distances with enormous environmental impact involved in that, and then using it to manufacture products they’re shipping back to us. And we’re buying and basically turning it into trash again, and then it’s an endless cycle. It’s an incredibly wasteful process. You think of all of these 12,000-mile journeys with giant cargo vessels shipping this material. The perverse economies of it work because of the nature of our consumer economy, but it’s an incredibly wasteful process.”

Sources
  • www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/index.htm
  • www.informinc.org/reportpdfs/st/GreeningGarbageTrucks.pdf
  • www.seas.columbia.edu/earth/wtert/sofos/SOG2010.pdf
  • www.post-gazette.com/neighborhoods-city/2013/09/28/Extra-trip-aims-to-keep-garbage-trucks-under-weight-limits/stories/201309280049
  • www.npr.org/2012/04/26/150735732/following-garbages-long-journey-around-the-earth
  • www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html
  • www.sfenvironment.org/sites/default/files/editor-uploads/zero_waste/pdf/sfe_zw_waste_disposal_study.pdf
  • www.recyclinginternational.com/recycling-news/7338/plastic-and-rubber/united-states/plastics-experts-assess-039-green-fence-039-impact
  • www.qz.com/122003/plastic-recycling-china-green-fence/
  • http://www5.sfgov.org/sf_news/recycling/
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