U.S. Landfill

I typically like to focus on the positive when speaking or writing about environmental issues. The problems are so overwhelming already that they can, ironically, stun people into inaction. In the face of such incredible obstacles, it can be easy to wonder what effect one person’s actions can possible have.

So, I focus on the positive. Today, however, I’m going to do both. You see, we have a problem. The United States produces more than twice the amount sent to landfills as was previously thought. Clearly, this is bad news.

Landfills Keep Filling Up

How were we so far off? Well, the Environmental Protection Agency typically estimated the amount of garbage dumped in landfills by totaling reports from businesses, as well as data on consumption patterns and population. Eventually someone decided that it would be more precise to measure American waste in real numbers, rather than estimates. In 2010 the EPA asked landfills to measure and report how much waste was being dumped. The results were….not good.

In 2012, the EPA estimated that 135 million tons of trash headed to landfills when reported amounts show that this figure is actually closer to 289 million tons as outlined in a recent Yale University studyTwo hundred and eighty-nine million tons!

This discrepancy is incredibly alarming, not only because of the obvious implications for already overflowing landfills and the environmental complications which naturally follow, but it also means that Americans may be recycling far less than originally thought as well.

Landfill waste
Image courtesy of Bill McChesney.

Filled With Hope

And here’s where you come in. Here’s where this stops being a guilt-inducing story and begins to be an inspiring one (cue swelling soundtrack)

This? These numbers? They are in your power to change. They’re measuring you. These numbers are easy to break down into the individual trash contribution of each person in the US. In 2013 it was 1,871 pounds per person, or five pounds a day. That’s you, 1871 pounds. Those are your garbage bags at the curb, and that number is yours to change, yours to reduce.

You can’t clean up the floating garbage patch. But this? This is within your control.  Someday, all of those little actions will add up to a big action – i.e. no floating garbage patch.  It’s possible and it is in your control.

Buy less. Recycle more. Compost. Encourage your friends and your family members and your coworkers and even random strangers on the bus and the train to do the same.

You can have an impact. And now we can measure it.

Feature image courtesy of United Nations Photo

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.