What would you do if no one came to pick up your trash? Or your neighbors' trash? What if no one picked up the trash anywhere in your entire community?
Would you let it pile up? At first it would look like this street in Manhattan. The pile would get bigger, and start to smell really bad. Animals would get into it, making a bigger mess. What are you going to do with it?
It's something we're facing as a nation, since countries like China, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia will no longer be accepting waste imports from the U.S., which for years sent nearly 4,000 shipping containers full of recyclables to China every day, according to USA Today, and most of what Americans conscientiously put in their recycling bins wasn't even recycled because it was contaminated (things like food and shampoo prevent plastic waste from being recycled.)
In municipalities around the U.S., the recyclables are starting to pile up, with some facilities so overrun that they have stopped sorting through it, and are sending it to the landfill instead.
Reducing consumption and waste is the first step to solving the problem. In 2015, Americans generated 262.4 million tons of trash. More than half, 137.7 million tons, ended up in landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
So what is all this trash we are throwing away? Based on data on municipal solid waste from the EPA, and the data crunchers at title lender TitleMax, this is all the trash one American produces in one year.
The Trash Each American Produces in One Year
- 854.2 pounds per person
The EPA's data on municipal solid waste excludes construction waste. This category of wood includes wood packaging (crates and pallets,) furniture, other durable goods (such as cabinets for electronic equipment,) and some other miscellaneous products. Durable goods are items that last three or more years.
2. Food Waste
- 220.96 pounds per person
About 76% of food waste ends up in landfills, but could be composted.
3. Corrugated Boxes
- 187.77 pounds per person
Photo: Cari Rubin Photography / Shutterstock
4. Ferrous Metal Durable Goods
- 92.80 pounds per person
The largest sources of ferrous metals (metals that mostly contain iron) are found in durable goods (goods that last three years or more) such as appliances, furniture and tires.
Photo: Photointoto / Shutterstock
5. Yard Trimmings
- 91.53 pounds per person
Yard trimmings can be composted. In 2015, only 21 million tons of yard trimmings were composted, although that amount represents a fivefold increase since 1990, according to the EPA.
6. Durable Plastics
- 72.99 pounds per person
Manufacturers use plastic in durable goods such as appliances, furniture, casings of lead-acid batteries and other products.
- 53.38 pounds per person
Newspapers had a recycling rate of 76.8%, the EPA says.
8. Glass Beer and Soft Drink Bottles
- 35.22 pounds per person
Photo: Jonathan Park / Shutterstock
9. Folding Cartons
- 34.97 pounds per person
This includes cereal boxes, frozen food boxes, and some department store boxes.
Photo: LunaseeStudios / Shutterstock
10. Office Papers
- 30.25 pounds per person
11. Other Plastic Packaging
- 28.98 pounds per person
This includes clamshells, trays, caps, lids, egg cartons, produce baskets, coatings and plastic closures.
12. Other Nondurable Plastics
- 28.22 pounds per person
These plastics are found in products such as disposable diapers, medical devices and household items such as shower curtains.
13. Other Non-Packaging Paper
- 25.54 pounds per person
These papers, such as posters, photographic papers, cards and games, accounted for 3.7 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2015. The EPA did not identify any significant recycling of these papers.
14. Plastic Bags, Sacks, and Wraps
- 24.27 pounds per person
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year. About 100,000 marine animals are killed by plastic bags each year.
- 23.06 pounds per person
16. Tissue Paper and Paper Towels
- 22.36 pounds per person
17. Rubber (Not Tires)
- 22.29 pounds per person
This rubber comes from clothing and footwear, and other miscellaneous items such as gaskets on appliances, furniture and hot water bottles.
18. Rubber -- Tires
- 19.24 pounds per person
The EPA estimated that 2.4 million tons of tires were recycled in 2015, roughly 40% of the total amount of rubber in tires generated that year. Pictured is a tire facility in Colorado.
Photo: Steven Liveoak / Shutterstock
19. Plastic Bottles and Jars (PET)
- 17.77 pounds per person
PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate, the type of plastic.
Photo: designs by Jack / Shutterstock
20. Other Commercial Printing
- 16.94 pounds per person
This includes a wide range of paper items, including brochures, reports, menus and invitations.
21. Other Bottles and Jars (Not Alcohol)
- 12.74 pounds per person
22. Glass Durable Goods
- 13.95 pounds per person
This generally refers to glass found in durable goods such as appliances and furniture.
23. Glass -- Wine and Liquor Bottles
- 11.78 pounds per person
24. Steel Cans
- 11.78 pounds per person
Most of these steel cans are for food products.
25. Aluminum Goods (Durable and Non Durable)
- 10.89 pounds per person
- 9.36 pounds per person
27. Other Paper Packaging
- 9.30 pounds per person
This includes milk and juice cartons.
Photo: Eric Glenn / Shutterstock
28. Lead Durable Goods
- 9.04 pounds per person
Lead is found in vehicle batteries as well as some appliances.
29. Plastic HDPE Containers
- 8.98 pounds per person
The EPA estimated that only about 30% of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) containers were recycled. They are mostly milk and water jugs.
30. Aluminum Beer and Soda Cans
- 8.28 pounds per person
The EPA Recommends:
- Shop for products made with recycled materials
- Buy items with less packaging, use refillable and reusable containers, and buy only what you need, especially when buying food.
- At home, reuse bags, recycle electronics, and ask to be removed from paper mailing lists.
- Compost food scraps and waste.