How Trashy Are You? A Look at America’s Waste Problem

By Elle O’Casey

This year, for the first time since the Beverage Marketing Corporation began tracking industry sales in the 1970s, bottled water sales surpassed soda sales. According to Ban the Bottle, the energy it takes to meet America’s demand for bottled water equals the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil annually, or gas for 1.3 million cars. The fact that bottled water sales have reached their highest point ever means we are creating exponentially more trash. This is because the average American, using 167 disposable water bottles a year, recycles only 22% of these bottles. This is a common dilemma individuals are met with after drinking a soda or water. Standing with bottle in hand, even the most well-intentioned citizens wandering the street or gas stations for recycling containers will only persevere so long. When no cans are found, the convenience of getting rid of this empty bottle occupying their hands triumphs, and the container is thrown in the closest trash bin.

Working with the Village of Woodstock, Sustainable Woodstock started a trial program in 2012 to implement recycling in public places. We designed a clear label for containers, tracked the usage and found good compliance. We had a head start on Act 148 which, as of July 2015, required any trash container in a public space to be accompanied by a recycling receptacle, making recycling more convenient in more locations. Public spaces include city streets, parks, municipal offices, schools, and more; bathrooms are exempt.

The trash problem extends far beyond plastic bottles. According to EPA, Americans produce 254 million tons, or 508 billion pounds of trash each year. This means each of us generate 4.4 pounds of trash per day. Reading this, we probably just said to ourselves, “Yes, but I don’t produce that much. That’s someone elsee.” Yet the truth is, this number is an accurate representation of our waste generation. It’s not the outlier, it’s the average. One can see the magnitude of the problem on this interactive map which illustrates the prolific expansion of landfills across the US since 1900.

In an effort to help people realize just how much trash they each produce each day, a group of college students and staff came up with a brilliant wake-up call. The experiment, written up in a 1989 New York Times article, talks about a group of people at Dartmouth who decided to carry around all the trash they produced for a week. More than 100 members of Dartmouth College participating, walking around the campus with all the trash they’d produced. Participants and observers quickly came to realize the magnitude of the problem. Some of the things the participants learned about their individual consumption included the need to “bring a knapsack to the grocery store, reuse white paper before recycling it, buy beer by the keg, use a bandana instead of napkins and use silverware instead of plastic utensils.” Their experiment inspired a national movement called the “Trash On Your Back” Challenge where participants must carry all the trash they produce for five days.

In 2012, the legislature passed Act 148, the Universal Recycling Law, with the ultimate statewide goal of “zero waste.” As of July, 2015, no recyclable materials are allowed in landfills. Starting last year, the law phases in mandatory collection of food scraps for composting; at first only large institutions are affected but by 2020 organic materials will no longer be treated as “garbage.”

Sustainable Woodstock has a Trash Force. This volunteer-led group works to improve recycling practices in our community. In the past year, with a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation, our recycling outreach consultant prepared handouts on Act 148 regulations, local recycling options, “How to Recycle Almost Everything” and guidelines for food scraps. She reached out to 50 local businesses to help solve their recycling issues and presented the information at public meetings throughout town.

The Trash Force has developed a recycling policy for community events, facilitated the installation of recycling bins throughout the Village, and provided recycling services at public events, including the Road to the Pogue, Covered Bridges Half Marathon and the Trek to Taste. The Trash Force helps divert 75% of trash to recycling and compost at those events. In April, Sustainable Woodstock held an electronics recycling drop-off event at Union Arena that collected more than three tons of discarded computers, televisions, batteries, lightbulbs and other electronic components from area homeowners and businesses. Change the World Kids also participated and collected cell phones and ink cartridges. This program will be repeated annually on or around Earth Day.

Do Just One Thing: If it can’t be recycled, rethink buying it.

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