New York - The United States leads the world in the production of waste, followed by other leading industrial nations.
The U.S. manages to produce a quarter of the world's waste despite the fact that its population of 300 million is less than 5% of the world's population, according to 2005 estimates.
The U.S. accumulates at least 236 million tons per year of municipal solid waste alone, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The United Nations and other agencies estimate worldwide annual waste production at more than 1 billion tons, and some estimates go as high as 1.3 billion.
Paper and paperboard, food scraps and plastics dominate this waste. If we go back a few years to 1960, the level of waste generation was about one-third what it is now, so it can be said that we are learning to produce trash at a greater rate. Each U.S. citizen produces an average of more than 1,600 pounds of waste per year. That is a lot of trash.
Waste is measured in many ways. One of the most common categories is municipal solid waste: household and some commercial waste. Other categories include electronic waste, hazardous waste, recyclable waste (around 30% in the U.S. and far more in places like Japan), non-recyclable waste (which is what makes up landfills) and endless other distinctions.
Waste creation and disposal is measured by the United Nations, the EPA and Greenpeace, as well as interested parties that monitor hazardous waste or radioactive waste for their own use and often alert the public on the production of such wastes.
Some exceptional companies like Agilent Technologies take waste very seriously and track their own use worldwide. They publish their world, Asian, European and U.S. waste facts on their Web site in a way that the U.N. and the EPA might well imitate. Al Rego, the management systems manager of Agilent, says, "Our company reduced total waste for several years, but our figures are flat through 2004-2005. This can be accounted for by our significant growth."
Other companies such as Hewlett-Packard have made a positive move by paying money for returned ink cartridges, while Canon has spent great sums on recycling toner cartridges. This may have begun as good public relations, but it also helps reduce the sheer volume of waste being generated.
Waste can be a problem, a commodity (a $57 billion U.S. industry), or an embarrassment--as when a state like New York has waste barges traveling about, looking for a place to land. Some other states, such as Pennsylvania, receive waste and get paid for it. Pennsylvania is, indeed, the lucky recipient of truckloads of New York trash. New York City spends around $1 million a day on long-haul trash.
The total amount of trash imported and exported around the U.S. is 40 million tons. The looming problem in the U.S. is that available landfill sites have dropped by 80% in the last few decades. The good news is that those still available are among the bigger ones. Still, each day we fill more than 44,000 garbage trucks, each holding about 9 tons of trash. When is too much too much?
According to Drewry Shipping Consultants, out of 100 containers shipped from China, 60 go back to China empty. Those that are full may contain waste paper, scrap metal or hay. These items do not cover the cost of return, but every container buck counts.
It appears our trade to China is, in great part, about sending raw hides and getting back shoes; sending waste paper and getting back packaged toys, lamps and household items; sending scrap metal and getting back machinery; and sending raw cotton and getting back finished clothes. Wal-Mart Stores alone imports 576,000 containers from China each year.
Almost all waste needs to be transported by truck, barge, ship or rail, and often it goes around the globe. It is an awesome and smelly business.
As bad as it is for the U.S. to top the list of the biggest waste producers, other, smaller nations are actually doing far better even when the ratio of waste is calculated against the total population served. It also needs to be noted that countries like Japan and Germany, for all their trash, are most accomplished at recycling and properly burning waste under controlled conditions.