According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans produce about 4.4 pounds of garbage daily. That’s around 1,600 pounds a year!

Americans represent 5% of the world’s population but generate 30% of its garbage. Less than 2% of the waste stream in the U.S. gets recycled. Yet a large percentage of what’s landfilled is recyclable.

According to a report from the University of Utah’s School of ArchitectureAmericans waste billions of pounds of materials per year. That includes:

  • 5 billion pounds of carpet that’s landfilled
  • 19 billion pounds of polystyrene peanuts
  • 28 billion pounds of discarded food
  • 710 billion pounds of hazardous waste
  • 0.7 trillion pounds of construction debris

We throw out enough wood to heat 5 million homes for 200 years. Almost 40% of the material in our landfills is paper.

A large percentage of what we toss into landfills could be recycled – by us. Since its inception in the 1970s, the recycling movement has been growing yet there are still cities without mandatory recycling.

Let’s examine what ends up in landfills

Aluminum takes 200-500 years to fully degrade in a landfill. Recycling aluminum takes 95% less energy than making it from raw materials. And aluminum cans be recycled many times, providing a continual supply of recycled aluminum.

Glass takes 1,000,000 years to fully degrade in a landfill. One ton of recycled glass saves 7.5 pounds of air pollutants from being released into the air and 5 gallons of oil.

Plastic takes up to 1,000 years to fully degrade. Americans throw away 35 billion plastic bottles every year and only 25% of the plastic produced in this country gets recycled! We would save 1 billion gallons of oil and 44 million cubic yards of landfill space annually if we recycled the other 75%.

And who knew 500,000 trees are used to produce 88% of Sunday newspapers – many of which aren’t recycled. We toss out 4.5 million tons of office paper every year. If we recycled one ton of paper, we’d save 380 gallons of oil and 7,000 gallons of water.

Packaging, especially fast food containers, accounts for much of the paper and plastic-related products winding up in landfills.

We throw away enough iron and steel to continuously supply all the U.S. automakers yet we toss out 70% of the metal we use. With the shortage of steel in this country, that makes no sense (or cents).

What can consumers do about all this?

Rethink your purchasing habits. We buy things in plastic containers but you have choices. Companies like Method and Seventh Generation are producing recyclable packaging. As more consumers demand that, manufacturers will respond.

Consider buying less and/or less often. And consider taking recyclable containers with you when you shop. It’s like taking a recyclable shopping bag with you.

Recycle more. Here are some suggestions:

  • You can recycle shoes. The Soles4Souls is a Nashville-based nonprofit that collects, recycles, and reuses shoes from warehouses of footwear companies and our closets and then distributes them to people in need.
  • Take furniture to consignment. You’ll get some cash and someone else gets a nice addition to their home.
  • Take gently used clothes to a second-hand store or donate them to a charitable organization.
  • Recycle electronics (responsibly) as e-waste.
  • Recycle through TerraCycle. Sign up for any of TerraCycle’s free recycling programs (or fee-based programs) to collect any of the many things that were previously non-recyclable like juice containers, chip bags, etc. Collect and send them in and gain points for charity. Everyone wins, including the environment!

Learn what can be recycled, where and how, and do your part. We’re the deciding factor in how fast our landfills fill. The more we recycle, the less our landfills will fill with unnecessary waste. It’s up to us.

Our recycling search is a great resource for minimizing your own waste footprint.  

Saving mannequins from landfills?  Read all about it here.

Feature image courtesy of Bill McChesney


By Debra Atlas

As an environmental journalist, blogger, professional speaker and radio personality, Debra Atlas lights the way to let consumers discover exciting, useful green products that won’t make their checkbooks implode. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, she is a frequent contributor to environmentally focused publications and conferences.