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Uncle Sam's Waste


I have had the benefit of not one but two winter holidays this year. I am not used to taking winter holidays and could probably do without them. They are kind of like a conjugal visit with Mother Nature. It’s fun while it lasts but you know you will be returning to the snow and cold.
Our latest foray took us to South Beach in Miami and then on a cruise.
I took a copy of the “US Environmental Protection Agency report Municipal Solid Waste-in the United States-2009 Facts and Figures” with me for airplane reading. It is a comprehensive document and an insightful read.
http://www.epa.gov/waste/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2009rpt.pdf
In 2009 Americans generated about 2 kilograms of waste per day (or about 730 kilograms/year). This includes all residential waste and commercial waste but does not include industrial or C&D wastes. Overall there seems to be a small decrease in waste generation and this was attributed to the recent and ongoing economic slowdown.
By contrast in 1960 Americans generated about 1.2 kg/day of waste.
About 65% of the wastes are attributed to the residential sector with the remainder attributed to the commercial sector. In Canada where waste statistics include all IC&I wastes we attribute about 35% of waste generation to the residential sector and the balance to the IC&I. I suspect if industrial and C&D wastes were included in US totals that the residential portion would be much closer to 35%.
The American MSW waste diversion rate has been pretty steady since 2005 and is estimated to be about 34%. About 25% comes from recycling and about 8% from composting. Energy from waste (EFW) accounts for 12% of waste management. The balance of about 54% is sent to landfill.
By contrast in 1960 94% of wastes were landfilled.
On average recovery rate for recycling is about 0.5 kg/day or about 180 kg/year. For composting it is about 0.2 kg/day or about 70 kg/year.
Recycling rates were highest for paper, cardboard, yard waste and metals. Paper, cardboard and yard waste had estimated capture rates of about 60%. Metal had a relatively low estimated capture rate of about 35%.
Certainly there have been positive strides for recycling and composting in the US. As a tourist I saw a number of public space recycling opportunities. The airports all have recycling bins. Delta airlines recycled extensively on the airplane, including plastic cups. Even the cruise ship has recycling opportunities and an extensive video about environmental initiatives. Residents and businesses have access to many waste diversion programs.
Yet waste generation does not appear to be abating. The US could be considered as the progenitor of consumerism. It is the driving force of their economy but also drives waste generation.
We were on an absolute behemoth of a ship for our cruise. My wife and I were on the fourteenth floor (and there were more). While we had a great time celebrating my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary the place was like a big shopping mall. You can check out any time but you can never leave. Even the ports were like another wing of the shopping mall. Everything was geared to constant consumption.
While that is part of being on holiday and can be fun I think we become a bit immune to this constant consumption. It becomes normal. I am writing a piece for my next Organic Matters column and was reading up on some Thai landfills where people live and hide and are not above eating food that is tipped from incoming garbage trucks. This is quite a contrast. Somewhere there must be a happy medium.
The USEPA report talks about source reduction but it is clear, economic downturn blips notwithstanding, that progress is really nonexistent. It is only when consumption is viewed differently that this will change. This will take a drastic event where resources become scarce for one reason or another and there is a paradigm shift. A world war educated my parents about consumption. When you have nothing, something is everything. Even in the face of plenty this has informed their approach to resource consumption for their whole lives.
After the flight back from Miami the ride home from Detroit back to London was fraught with heavy snow, strong west winds, a determined driver and an equally nervous wife. We sought emergency shelter in a smelly Bates-like motel, near Ridgetown. This holiday was definitely over.


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