Recycling abstract

Americans love being #1 – waving that big foam finger and shouting the chant that goes along with it. This has presented somewhat of a conflict for me at times, being the proud Canadian that I am. Facing off to the States for hockey games in particular always felt like David versus Goliath, a nail-biting death match that we couldn’t lose. Not to the Americans! 

Recycling revolution?

Over the years, this sense of rivalry has largely disappeared as I’ve come to realize that we’re less like David and Goliath and more like siblings, our shared room divided by a masking tape line through the middle. Our similarities far outnumber our differences. I’ve also learned that our bigger sibling is pretty used to winning – winning in leadership, sports, entertainment, and sometimes, sheer mind-boggling calories consumed in a single meal.

Unfortunately, there are also some areas where the U.S. doesn’t just not win – they come dead last.

One of these areas is sustainability.

Materials waiting for recyclingIn a poll conducted by National Geographic, Americans have consistently ranked last every single year since the study was developed in 2008. In a survey designed to measure “energy use and conservation, transportation choices, food sources, the relative use of green products versus conventional products, attitudes toward the environment and sustainability, and knowledge of environmental issues” Yankees have trailed the rest of the world for seven years straight- sometimes by a rather wide margin.


Who’s on first?

This particular survey is conducted as an online poll of over 18,000 people in 18 countries across the world, and they call it the GreenDex. It’s a fascinating cross-section of attitudes toward environmental change, reported behavior, government policy and science behind things like global warming. To add insult to injury, however, it would appear that not only does the U.S. rank lowest, their score actually decreased from the year prior.

It might also surprise you to learn who was #1 – India. They earned a score of 61.4 compared to the US’s 44.6 , largely due toward progressive attitudes toward using public transportation rather than personal cars, and being among the most likely to purchase green power and use solar energy to heat running water.

The results of the GreenDex survey may seem depressing, so it should warm your heart to know that when you break it down into behavior in specific environmental initiatives like recycling, Americans fare much better.  According to the EPA, Americans currently recycle 34% of the waste they create, faring better than Japan (21%) Australia (30%) and yes, Canada (a measly 27%).

Germany, Austria, and Singapore are killing it, leading the pack at recycling 62%, 63%, and 59% of their waste respectively, while the UK squeaks in just above the States at 34%.

California dreamin’

It should come as no surprise that the 34% recycling rate that the U.S. did earn is being driven by a score of over-achieving cities – and even more unsurprising, that four out of the ten are in California.

The cities in the US with highest recycling rates are:

  • Fresno, California
  • Fremont, California
  • San Antonio, Texas
  • Burlington, Vermont
  • Anaheim, California
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Jacksonville, Florida
  • San Diego, California
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • Durham, North Carolina

While cities in the bottom ten like Louisville, Kentucky and Detroit, Michigan drag the national average down.

Woman recycling materials at home
The amount of waste being produced is increasing every year, begging the question – Does recycling really help if we’re not also reducing consumption?

While it’s always nice not to be last, and even on-par with nations of similar size, these recycling numbers don’t tell the whole story. While it’s true that Americans recycle 34% of their waste, that number has remained virtually unchanged since 2012. Not only that but while recycling rates remain stagnant, the amount of waste being produced is increasing every year, begging the question, does recycling really help if we’re not also reducing consumption?

In 2012, Americans produced 251 million tons of trash. In 2013? 254 million. That works out to almost four and a half pounds of trash per person, per day, and if you want to start feeling really guilty, in 1960 that number was 2.68 lbs.


Consumer behavior under the microscope

American Consumer behavior was at the heart of the Greendex study, too, with the report stating, “Nearly one in four American households owns four or more TVs. Americans are also among the most likely to balk at paying extra for environmentally friendly products, and they consume more packaged and processed food than people in most other countries. And since the 2012 survey, more Americans are saying that they view owning a big house as an important goal in their lives.”

We’ve talked about the consumption correlation before, addressing the need to reduce before we recycle because in the long run recycling is simply not enough. It needs to be a big picture view, or it doesn’t work. Americans need to be able to see why they’re ranking last in sustainability attitudes, and middling in recycling rates, and also how to fix it.

Innovation, innovation, innovation

So what is to be done for a country who loves to be #1, yet right now is anything but? Well, America, I think you should do what you do best – innovate. Invent. Experiment. Revolutionize patterns of consumption and make recycling as hyped as a summer blockbuster.  You put a man on the moon, you don’t think you can do this?

It only takes a moment to dig up some of the truly incredible advancements in environmentally-friendly living that are taking place in the US of A – take this top ten list as a perfect example.

Wind farms in Corpus Christi, xeriscaping in Denver. A solar installation in Long Beach, California which generates 1 million kilowatt hours of clean energy, and a landfill rehabilitation project in New York, NY that has transformed a landfill that used to be the final resting place of 29,000 pounds of trash a day, into a public park three times the size of iconic Central Park.

These stories are just as important as the ones where the U.S. comes last, or doesn’t measure up. These are the stories that show what can be done, with a little gusto, a little moxie. And if watching decades of Hollywood films has taught me anything, it’s that Americans love an underdog story.

How about a comeback, Uncle Sam? How about a tale of the country that could. The country that came together and blew everyone else out of the water by reducing consumption, raising recycling rates and hauling itself out of dead last, to be #1.

That’s a story even this Canadian would cheer for.

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.