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Garbage, Waste, Refuse in America and Worldwide


The writer John Steinbeck said, "American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash - all of them - surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. In this, if no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index. I wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness - chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea. When an Indian village became too deep in its own filth, the inhabitants moved. And we have no place to which to move."

With a population of 319 million people in 2014, the United States generates 4.5 pounds of trash per person 24/7.

Americans throw 251 million tons of trash annually into landfills, onto the land, into our lakes, rivers and into the oceans.
Photo: D'Arcy Norman

We throw away more trash than most of the rest of the world, but they catch up annually as they grow their populations by 80 million each year. China adds 27 million cars, net gain, to their highways annually, but as those autos age, their dead carcasses litter the landscape. China expects to use and toss over 900 to 1,200 million tires annually, as they continue their quest to be more like Americans. The US tosses 250 million tires annually.

Plastic Bags

  • 60,000 - Number of plastic bags consumed in the U.S. every 5 seconds (Sierra Club )
  • 240,000 - Number of plastic bags consumed worldwide every 10 seconds (Sierra Club )
  • 1 billion - Number of plastic bags Americans use every year

The amount of garbage we discard numbs a thinking person's mind and stupefies anyone who thinks about the ramifications of our future.


ocean of plastic
Part of the 100 million tons of plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch the size of Texas just 1,000 miles west of San Francisco and growing as billions of humans toss their plastics into our oceans.
Photo: Mother Nature Network
  • 15 million - Sheets of office paper used in the U.S. every 5 minutes. The average American uses roughly the equivalent of one 100-foot-tall Douglas fir tree in paper and wood products each year.
  • 2.4 million pounds - Amount of plastic pollution that enters the world's oceans every hour (Clean Air Council)
  • 1 million - Number of plastic cups that are consumed on airline flights in the U.S. every 6 hours (Chris Jordan)
  • 2 million - Number of plastic beverage bottles that are used in the U.S. ever 5 minutes. The number of plastic water bottles discarded in the U.S. every week could circle the Earth five times.

The more I dive into the research of this series, the more I am sickened at what I discover. When you pile up the numbers for the USA, it's overwhelming. When you pile up the numbers for India, China and other overpopulated countries, it's down right frightening. We add 1 billion humans every 12 years - so the trash numbers will continue to climb. Our oceans will continue to be destroyed. But no one will address it; not one single world leader.

tents in trash
People living in their own trash in Africa, India, Mexico and many places around the world.


  • 20 to 50 million metric tons - Amount of electronics the world throws away annually. That's the equivalent of trashing 45,500 to 125,000 fully loaded 747s each year.

In total, the USA discards 251 million tons of trash annually. How do you compare that number?

The United States discards more than 4,837 Titanics filled with trash in a normal calendar year.

living in garbage
People living in the utter nightmare of their own waste around the world.

Unfortunately, it drips, drains, funnels and wafts into the land, air and water. We face payback in the coming years on a scale unheard of in human history.

Worldwide, humans produce 1.2 kg of trash per person per day or 1.3 billion tons per year). By 2025 this will likely increase to 4.3 billion urban residents generating about 1.42 kg/capita/day of municipal solid waste 2.2 billion tons per year.

Finally, Americans waste or cause to be wasted nearly 1 million pounds of materials per person every year. This figure includes 3.5 billion pounds of carpet landfilled, 3.3 trillion pounds of CO2 gas emitted into the atmosphere, 19 billion pounds of polystyrene peanuts, 28 billion pounds of food discarded, 360 billion pounds of organic and inorganic chemicals used for manufacturing, 710 billion pounds of hazardous waste and 3.7 trillion pounds of construction debris.

If wastewater is factored in, the total annual flow of waste in the American Industrial system is 250 trillion pounds. Less than 2% of the total waste stream in the United States is recycled.

For all the world to live as an American we would need two more Earths; three more if the population should double and twelve Earths altogether if worldwide standards of living doubled in the next forty years.

And to think that America will add another 138 million people by 2050 - a scant 36 years from now. The world will add another 3.1 billion people in that time.

Business could help fix this. Individual people could help fix this. Governments could too, but it isn't likely, based on past history.

Somewhere down the line, Mother Nature will kick our rear-ends back to the Stone Age.

Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents - from the Arctic to the South Pole - as well as six times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border. In 2005, he bicycled from the Arctic Circle, Norway to Athens, Greece. His latest book is: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World by Frosty Wooldridge, copies at 1 888 280 7715/ Motivational program: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World. Read more stories by Frosty Wooldridge.

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