Resource Waste

The U.S. is far better at creating waste — 1 million pounds per person per year — than products.


Fresh Kills on Staten Island is the world’s largest landfill, providing a repository for the garbage of New York City. Covering 4 square miles and more than 100 feet deep, it contains 2.9 billion cubic feet of trash, including 100 million tons of newspaper, paint cans, potato peels, cigarette butts, chicken bones, dryer lint, and an occasional corpse. New Yorkers dump 26 million pounds of trash at Fresh Kills daily. By the time it closes in 2001, it will be the tallest hill on the Eastern seaboard. But as massive as Fresh Kills is, it takes in just .02 percent of the waste generated in the United States. Every day, Americans dispose of an additional 5,300 times as much waste elsewhere.

Americans, who have the largest material requirements in the world, each directly or indirectly use an average of 125 pounds of material every day, or about 23 tons per year. This consumption consists of fuels in the form of gas, coal, and oil; quarried materials such as stone, gravel, and sand; industrial minerals such as phosphate, cement, and gypsum; industrial metals such as copper and aluminum; forestry products such as sawed timber, pulpwood for paper, and firewood; and agricultural products such as milk, meat, eggs, grain, hay, and produce.

Americans waste more than 1 million pounds per person per year. This includes: 3.5 billion pounds (920 million square yards) of carpet sent to landfills, 25 billion pounds of carbon dioxide, and 6 billion pounds of polystyrene. Domestically, we waste 28 billion pounds of food, 300 billion pounds of organic and inorganic chemicals used for manufacturing and processing, and 700 billion pounds of hazardous waste generated by chemical production. If you count the waste developed in extracting gas, coal, oil, and minerals, that would add another 34 trillion pounds per year.

Furthermore, domestic figures for material flows do not account for the waste generated overseas on our behalf. For example, the Freeport-McMoRan gold mine in Irian Jaya annually dumps 66 pounds of tailings and toxic waste into Indonesian rivers for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Only a tiny fraction of the 125,000 tons of daily waste material comes to the United States as gold. The rest remains there.

Total wastes, excluding wastewater, exceed 50 trillion pounds a year in the United States. (A trillion is a big number. To count to 50 trillion at the rate of one numeral per second would require the cumulative and total lifetimes of 23,000 people.) If you add wastewater, the total flow of American waste equals at least 250 trillion pounds. Less than 5 percent of the total waste stream actually gets recycled — primarily paper, glass, plastic, aluminum, and steel.

We are far better at making waste than at making products. For every 100 pounds of product we manufacture in the United States, we create at least 3,200 pounds of waste. In a decade, we transform 500 trillion pounds of molecules into nonproductive solids, liquids, and gases.

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