The massive amount of waste generated every day is a hallmark of affluent, modern society. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), municipal solid waste--a combination of household and commercial refuse--amounts to about 180 million metric tons per year in the United States. That equals almost two-thirds of a ton of garbage for each individual every year. It represents nearly twice as much waste per capita as Europe or Japan, and five to ten times as much as most developing countries. The largest single category is paper and cardboard, which make up roughly 40% of the municipal waste stream. Another major category that constitutes about one quarter of United States garbage is organic materials including food wastes, plastics, and yard and garden wastes. Metal cans and glass bottles represent about 15% of total trash, and the remainder consists of miscellaneous refuse, including building materials, clothing, furniture, electronics, and paint.
Much of what's in the United States waste stream would be a valuable resource if it were not mixed with other garbage. Paper could be recycled and organic materials like food and yard waste could be composted. Plastics, glass, and metal containers could be melted and remanufactured into useful products. Building supplies and fabrics could be used over again for other purposes. One reason that other countries throw away so much less than the United States is that they can't afford to simply dump valuable commodities. They carefully sort, clean, and recycle many articles that are casually thrown away in the United States.
In most parts of the United States, the vast majority of all municipal waste is buried in sanitary landfills. Although these facilities are an advance over the older, open dumps in which garbage fires smoldered incessantly and rats and other vermin thrived, landfills can leak toxic contaminants into underlying groundwater aquifers. They also release methane, which is...
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