America’s Trash Crisis

The invisible yet pressing issue of our waste

Illustrator: Will Hanson

So many of the things that we use every day are disposable: plastic grocery bags, aluminum foil, the take-out container from your favorite Chinese place. The waste that we all produce is easy to forget about, and in America, we have an even greater issue than most countries. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the United States’ 319 million people produced 258 million tons of waste in 2014. To put this in perspective, China’s population, which is about four times the size of the United States’, produced 190 million tons in 2013.

Broken down by individual, an American typically produces about 4.4 pounds of trash every day, while the global average is 2.6 pounds. And all of the things that we dispose of have to go somewhere, so landfills in the United States are continuously growing with every pound that we produce.

Despite these alarming statistics, landfills aren’t commonly a hot topic in this country. The invisibility of this issue comes from how our trash disposal systems are structured. The majority of our cities either include trash removal in property taxes or make it a flat fee for whatever amount of trash that people want to dispose of. Because Americans don’t face a significant monetary penalty for producing as much waste as they please, there is no incentive to limit the amount of waste that they produce.

While the situation may sound bleak, we can take solace in the fact that students are pushing for change at the local level. The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) is a statewide collective of students from universities around Minnesota. The group has three task forces, with one being environmental justice.

A sophomore at the University of Minnesota, Schuyler McKinley, got involved with MPIRG this semester and joined the environmental justice campaign because it’s an issue that she cares deeply about.

On April 18, McKinley volunteered at the Second Annual Trash Audit, an event hosted by MPIRG’s environmental justice team. Taking place on Williamson Hall Plaza from 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM, the audit was open to the public. The organization received waste from the trash bins of Coffman Memorial Union, laid it out on tarps, and manually filtered through it. The purpose of this process is to sort what is actually trash from what can be recycled.

According to McKinley, recycling guidelines differ by city, so one goal is to clarify Minneapolis’s recycling policy to students. And it’s evident that students on our campus don’t have a complete understanding of what is recyclable. At last year’s trash audit, two thirds of the waste should have been recycled in the first place.

“Only about a third of the trash went to the trash can … so if you take the time and put effort into it, then you can see a big impact,” she said.

This is not only McKinley’s opinion. The Environmental Protection Agency claims that recycling and composting limited 87.2 million tons of waste from entering landfills in the United States in 2013. In carbon dioxide emission, that’s equal to eliminating 39 million cars from the road for a year.

Ultimately, the Second Annual Trash Audit was meant to encourage the campus community to live a more sustainable lifestyle. “I think this will be a great learning experience. The environment is a really important issue because we only have one, and I think we should take care of it,” said McKinley.

While national waste systems are burdened by the habits of Americans, grassroots organizations like MPIRG are taking education and action into their own hands. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that we can’t just recycle away our nation’s trash problems. We can and should increase our recycling practices, but it won’t fix the amount of waste that we create. It’s time that we, as Americans, look at how we consume.

So, bring your own reusable bag to the grocery store, don’t take a plastic straw when getting your iced coffee, and recycle what you can. Most importantly, support your fellow students who are doing the work to make our campus a more sustainable place.