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An Olympic-sized pool can hold about 660,000 gallons of water. Now imagine filling an Olympic-sized pool with garbage instead of water, and then doing that a total of 822,000 times. That’s how much municipal solid waste (garbage that local governments collect from homes and organizations) human society produces every single year — and the U.S. is contributing to the massive waste problem far more than any other country. Making matters worse, the U.S. only recycles 35 percent of the waste it generates.
These numbers come from a new study published by the research firm Verisk Maplecroft, an organization focused on global risk. The study also points out that, although the U.S. population is a mere four percent of the total global population, the country accounts for 12 percent of the world’s municipal solid waste. By comparison, the combined population of China and India accounts for 36 percent of the world’s population, but these countries only account for 27 percent of the world’s municipal solid waste.
In publishing this report, Verisk Maplecroft has also devised a new index that will likely prove helpful in combating the world’s ever-growing waste problems. This metric, the waste generation index, represents the amount of municipal solid waste, as well as plastic, food, and hazardous material waste, that a country generates per person. The waste generation index for the U.S. is 773 kg, meaning that the average person generates this much waste per year. This figure is the highest for any country, and it’s three times higher than for China and seven times higher than for Ethiopia.
Furthermore, the U.S. is the only developed country in which waste generation rates exceed recycling rates. Although Germany, for example, is among the world’s largest waste generators, the country also leads the developed world in recycling, with an impressive 68 percent of its waste recycled annually. Some of the scientists behind the Verisk Maplecroft study have pointed to discrepancies in policy and technology as the factors driving the American imbalance between waste buildup and recycling.
Changes in how the U.S. processes its waste have also driven the imbalance between its waste generation and recycling numbers. Until just recently, the U.S. sent its waste to China and developing countries. Now that those countries have stopped accepting U.S. waste, the country has resorted to burning its waste, which contributes to climate change and pollution. The inability of the U.S. to send its waste elsewhere has also exaggerated the ever-dire problem of plastic waste covering vast swaths of the ocean and settling on remote island shores.
International diplomats and waste experts earlier this year accused the U.S. of systematically blocking efforts to curb global plastic use. Some have said that, if not for U.S. interference, single-use plastic bottles and bags would have long ago been banned. Nevertheless, the United Nations has expressed its intention to move forward with global waste reduction efforts anyway. And given the dire numbers that Verisk Maplecroft has presented, the U.N. just might have the right idea.