Raleigh --- Every year, the average American throws out nearly 1,800 pounds of trash. Together, Americans throw out enough plastic each year to fill up the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium --- the largest NFL football stadium --- 565 times over. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a spiraling epidemic of waste, particularly when it comes to plastic.
On Thursday, North Carolina PIRG Education Fund, Environment North Carolina Research & Policy Center, Frontier Group and Community Action Works released a new report, Trash in America: Moving from destructive consumption towards a zero-waste system. The report examines America’s waste problem over the past three years, including the pandemic, and recommends 10 steps the United States should take to build a “zero waste” economy.
“The pandemic turned the world upside-down and trampled waste reduction efforts. For a time, reusable cups or shopping bags were no longer options to replace single-use items, and disposable takeout food containers and packaging from online shopping flooded the waste stream,” said Katie Craig, NCPIRG Education Fund director. “Despite these setbacks, and despite the efforts by industry groups to keep people from reusing, the U.S. has already restored much of our lost momentum on waste reduction.”
In less than a year, four states have passed single-use plastic bans on wasteful products, including single-use plastic bags, foam containers and plastic straws, bringing the total number of states with such requirements to 13. In July 2021, Maine passed the first U.S. producer responsibility law, requiring companies to cover the total costs of their wasteful products, including disposal.
“Producer responsibility is the next frontier in waste reduction,” said Adrian Pforzheimer, policy analyst for Frontier Group and report co-author. “By requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for all the materials they use and produce, cradle to grave, states like Maine can lead the way toward a more responsible and efficient economy.”
More than one third of U.S. waste is compostable, and over half is reusable or recyclable. The report offers 10 steps to reduce unnecessary waste and improve reuse, recycling and compost, including:
Require producers to take responsibility for their products throughout each item’s entire life cycle.
Make recycling and composting mandatory, universally accessible and less expensive than garbage disposal.
Require recycled and reused materials in new products, while encouraging businesses and governments to use those products.
Require that all single-use items be easily recyclable or compostable, including packaging, plastic bags and food service ware.
The U.S. waste problem has enormous implications beyond its own mass. Trash incineration emits heavy metals, brain function-impairing mercury and cancer-causing dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals on the planet. Every year, around 16.5 million tons of plastic washes into the world’s oceans. Plastic debris is one of the biggest threats to ocean biodiversity, entangling, poisoning and blocking the digestive tracts of marine animals.
"Trash in America's waterways is killing our wildlife like sea turtles, whales, birds and more. So much of this stuff is used once and then tossed. We can do better than this, but we have to consciously, collectively make that choice," said Krista Early, Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center Advocate. “We have the tools, and we have the know-how, but to get there, we must choose to prioritize wildlife over waste.”
America’s waste problem also has a significant impact on climate change. When resource extraction, production, disposal and transportation are all taken into account, the stuff that becomes waste in America contributes 42% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
“Pandemic or no pandemic, we have to do better and fight our trash problem,” said Early. “This report provides the steps to achieving zero waste, all we have to do is act on them.”