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10 Shocking Facts About Your Garbage

Facts About Garbage

Story at-a-glance -

  • The average American throws away more than 7 pounds of garbage a day
  • Americans toss 60 million water bottles daily, which is nearly 700 each minute
  • Most communities spend more to deal with trash than they spend for schoolbooks, fire protection, libraries, and parks

By Dr. Mercola

It's easy not to think about garbage. You throw away your empty cartons, bags, and cups, and once a week the trash collector comes and takes it all away. Out of sight, out of mind… except that it's not really gone.

Most US garbage is simply relocated from your garbage can to a landfill or incinerator, both of which are fraught with problems:

  • Incinerators: Emit toxic dioxins, mercury, cadmium, and other particulate matter into the air, and convert waste into toxic ash (which is sometimes used to cover landfills).
  • Landfills: There are more than 3,000 active landfills, and 10,000-old landfills, in the US.1 While the number of landfills in the US has been decreasing in recent decades, they have, individually, been increasing in size.

Along with being a major source of methane emissions, landfills produce "leachate," a toxic fluid composed of pollutants like benzene, pesticides, heavy metals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and more, which come from the compressed trash.

Although landfills are technically supposed to keep garbage dry and are lined to prevent leachate from contaminating nearby soil and groundwater, the landfill liners are virtually guaranteed to degrade, tear, or crack eventually, allowing the toxins to escape directly into the environment.

10 Shocking Facts About Your Garbage

MSN compiled 10 facts about garbage that are likely to surprise you.2 You may never look at your trash the same way again…

  1. More Than 100 Tons of Waste for Every American: The average American throws away more than 7 pounds of garbage a day. That's 102 tons in a lifetime, more than any other populations on Earth.
  2. Bottled Water Is the "Grandfather of Wasteful Industries." Edward Humes, author of the book "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash," counts bottled water among the most wasteful of industries. In the US, Americans toss 60 million water bottles daily, which is nearly 700 each minute.
  3. Food Waste Is a Problem Too: Americans throw away 28 billion pounds of food a year, which is about 25 percent of the US food supply.
  4. Disposables Are a Drain: Ten percent of the world's oil supply is used to make and ship disposable plastics – items like plastic utensils, plates, and cups that are used just one time and thrown away.
  5. Trash Is Expensive: Most communities spend more to deal with trash than they spend for schoolbooks, fire protection, libraries, and parks.
  6. Carpet Waste Alone Is Astounding: Americans throw away 5.7 million tons of carpet every year.
  7. Paper Waste Is a Shame: Americans waste 4.5 million tons of office paper a year. Ask yourself… do I really need to print that?
  8. Opting Out of Junk Mail Makes a Difference: According to Humes, the energy used to create and distribute junk mail in the US for one day could heat 250,000 homes. You can opt-out of junk mail by going to
  9. Too Many Toys: Only 4 percent of the world's children live in the US, but Americans buy (and throw away) 40 percent of the world's toys. Buy less toys, opt for second-hand versions, and pass down the toys you do purchase to others.
  10. Plastic Bags: On average, Americans use 500 plastic bags per capita each year. Such bags make up the second most common type of garbage found on beaches. Stash reusable shopping bags in your purse or car so you're not tempted by plastic or paper.

Bottled Water: One of the Worst Offenders

US landfills contain about 2 million tons of discarded water bottles, each of which will take more than 1,000 years to biodegrade. Recycling is only possible for a small number of these bottles, because only PET bottles are recyclable. In all, only one out of five plastic bottles ever make it to a recycling bin.3

You might think re-using the bottle is an option, but commercial water bottles tend to wear down from repeated use, which can lead to bacterial growth in surface cracks inside the bottle. This risk is compounded if you fail to adequately wash the bottle between each use, using mild soap and warm water.

But even with washing, these microscopic hiding places may still allow pathogenic bacteria to linger. Perhaps more importantly, the plastic chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates lurk in plastic water bottles and can pose serious health hazards, especially to pregnant women and children.

Fortunately, the use of bottled water is one of the easiest habits to change. Simply put a filter on your tap and use a reusable glass water bottle to carry with you.

Why You Should Consider Ditching Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are so wasteful and polluting to the environment that many US cities have already banned them outright. For a succinct and entertaining introduction to the waste that is the plastic bag, I highly recommend the film "Bag It."4

It is a truly eye-opening look to the vastness of the problem, and the immense waste that could be spared if more Americans toted a reusable bag with them to the grocery store. As their website reported:5

"In the United States alone, an estimated 12 million barrels of oil is used annually to make the plastic bags that Americans consume. The United States International Trade Commission reported that 102 billion plastic bags were used in the US in 2009.

These bags, even when properly disposed of, are easily windblown and often wind up in waterways or on the landscape, becoming eyesores and degrading soil and water quality as they break down into toxic bits."

On a worldwide scale, each year about 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide. At over 1 million bags per minute, that's a lot of plastic bags, of which billions end up as litter each year, contaminating oceans and other waterways.

Food Waste Is a Serious Issue

You might not think throwing a banana peel or apple core in your trash is a big deal, but organic waste is actually the second highest component of landfills in the US. Organic landfill waste has increased by 50 percent per capita since 1974, as illustrated in this infographic.6

Food Waste Infographic

One solution to this problem is to cut down on the amount of food you waste by planning your meals carefully (and shopping according), vacuum packing produce to help it last longer, eating leftovers and knowing when food is still safe to eat (versus when it’s actually spoiled).

Composting Can Help Reduce Organic Waste in Landfills

Another solution lies in creating a backyard compost pile. Composting food scraps recycles their nutrients and can reduce their ecological impact. It benefits soil, plants, and the greater environment, and it's not as difficult as you might think. Compost can be created with yard trimmings and vegetable food waste, manure from grazing animals, egg shells, brown paper bags, and more.

This can be done on an individual or community-wide level. For instance, in California, The Sonoma County Waste Management Agency operates a regional compost program in which they accept yard trimmings and vegetative food discards that are placed in curbside containers by local residents.

The organic material is then converted into premium quality organic compost and mulches, along with recycled lumber, firewood, and biofuel used to generate electricity. Since 1993, 1.6 million tons of yard and wood debris have been converted into these beneficial products.

Sonoma Compost, which operates the Organic Recycling Program on behalf of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, estimates that nearly 1.5 million tons of yard and wood trimmings have been diverted from landfills since 1993 as a result of the program.7

The Consequences of Living in a 'Throwaway' Society

Your parents and grandparents likely used products in reusable, recyclable, or degradable containers made from glass, metals, and paper. But today, discarded plastics and other waste are circling the globe at a significant human and environmental cost. It's a problem of convenience – choosing a plastic disposable water bottle instead of using a reusable glass container, for instance – as well as one of overconsumption.

Even durable items like electronics, toys, and clothes are often regarded as "throwaway" products that we use for a short period and quickly replace – often without recycling, donating, or re-using them for another purpose.

Of course, you are living in a society that makes you feel behind if you do not buy the latest model of this or that, or update your wardrobe with the latest fashions. We're also increasingly living on the go, where food in throwaway packages is by far the rule rather than the exception.

Contrast that to a couple of generations ago when frugality and resourcefulness were highly valued, and food came fresh from the farm, butcher shop, or baker, and you begin to see where the real problems with excess waste are springing from. The sheer amount of waste that is generated needlessly on any given day is quite mind-boggling. For instance, according to the Clean Air Council:8

  • The average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups every year.
  • Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons to circle the equator 300 times.
  • The estimated 2.6 billion holiday cards sold each year in the US could fill a football field 10 stories high.
  • Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, an extra million tons of waste is generated each week.
  • 38,000 miles of ribbon are thrown away each year, enough to tie a bow around the Earth.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle!

You've probably heard of The Three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Committing this into practice in your home can significantly reduce the amount of waste your family generates while also saving you money. You can do your part by taking the following action steps that reduce your plastic consumption and generation of waste, which will benefit your health as well as the environment.

Reduce your plastic use: If at all possible seek to purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic. Here are a few ideas... Use reusable shopping bags for groceries. Bring your own mug for coffee and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water. Store foods in the freezer in glass mason jars as opposed to plastic bags. Take your own leftovers container to restaurants. Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning. Avoid disposable utensils and buy foods in bulk when you can. These are just a few ideas — I'm sure you can think of more. Recycle/Repurpose what you can: Take care to recycle and repurpose products whenever possible, especially ones that are not available in anything other than plastic. This includes giving your clothes or gently used household items to charities and frequenting second-hand stores instead of buying new. Make use of online sites like that allow you to give products you no longer need away to others instead of throwing them away. Choose reusable over single-use: This includes non-disposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, glass bottles for your milk, cloth grocery bags, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, an old t-shirt or rags in lieu of paper towels, and so on.
Compost your food scraps and yard waste: A simple bin in your backyard can greatly cut down on your landfill contributions while rewarding you with a natural fertilizer for your soil. Support legislation: Support legislative efforts to manage waste in your community; take a leadership role with your company, school, and neighborhood. Be innovative: If you have a great idea, share it! Your capacity to come up with smarter designs and creative ideas is limitless and many heads are better than one. Innovations move us toward a more sustainable world.
Assist recovery: Return deposits on bottles and other plastic products, and participate in "plastic drives" for local schools, where cash is paid by the pound.