The U.S. is one of the top offenders when it comes to its creation and management of solid waste, according to an alarming new study examining global trash management.
A report by global risk group Verisk Maplecroft released last month found that the U.S. produces 12% of global municipal solid waste ― or three times the global average ― despite it representing just 4% of the world’s population.
That equates to 239 million tons, or 234 pounds of waste per person per year. If that wasn’t bad enough, the U.S. recycles just 35% of it.
“Given the US is the world’s largest economy it may not be surprising that it is one of the largest producers of household waste, but what is significant is its lack of commitment to offsetting its waste footprint,” the report states.
The report’s figures are slightly better than the numbers last reported by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2018, which estimated that the country generated 262.4 million tons of waste and recycled 25.5% of it in 2015.
The U.S., of course, isn’t alone in having a poor track record.
Highly developed European and North American countries were also found to be disproportionately responsible for the highest levels of waste generation. One major exception to this is Germany, which the report said has the world’s most efficient record on waste management with 68% of its municipal solid waste being recycled.
That’s not to say that recycling is argued as the best solution.
Previous reports have found that not all recyclable trash sorted for recycling actually undergoes the process for reasons including contamination with non-recyclables and an inability to process it. It is instead being dumped, buried and burned, including in cities like Philadelphia.
One method of shipping the waste off to other countries for treatment, which decreased countries’ incentive to invest in their own treatment facilities, has also broken down after China last year banned imports of other nations’ recyclables after more than 20 years of accepting it. Other Asian countries have since started to do this too.
“There’s too much focus on recycling being the kind of silver bullet solution, which it is not,” Will Nichols, the firm’s head of environment, told The Guardian. “I think what we need to be working towards is almost a zero-material-footprint kind of society.”
Some countries have started making strides to curb waste, with the European Union and Canada vowing to outlaw certain single-use plastics by 2021 and the United Kingdom by next year. Governments in the U.S. are making similar efforts.
World leaders attending the Group of 20 Summit in Tokyo last week also pledged to reduce the leakage of plastic waste into the world’s ocean to zero by 2050.
Despite these efforts, they were criticized by environmental activists for focusing on waste management rather than how to reduce it.
“The focus is on collecting and disposing of plastics instead of reducing the quantity produced,” Neil Tangri of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives told Reuters. “Japan has the opportunity to lead on this issue by reducing the production and use of plastic. They’re fumbling the opportunity.”