Raise your hand if you know when you need to put your trash out for it to be collected? Raise your hand if you know how many pounds of trash you are throwing out each week?
It’s a testament to the efficiency and the management of trash that we don’t often know how much trash we are generating. We don’t need to, and there is no visible reason that seems to indicate we should know.
I’d like to talk a bit about trash though, because I think it is something that is worth having more attention.
There are going to be quite a few numbers, and overall it’s kind of depressing to think about – but I’ll give one example which will hopefully shed a light of good.
It’s not all bad news, but at the end of this, if there’s one thing I want you to leave knowing – it’s that we are generating a lot of trash.
Let’s get to the numbers, those exciting, fascinating, can’t get enough numbers.
According to the EPA, in 2014 there were 258 million tons of municipal solid waste generated.
That’s a lot – but it breaks down a little.
Almost 13% of that is combusted, which is defined as the conversion of non-recyclable waste materials into usable heat, electricity or fuel. It’s garbage, but it’s usable garbage.
About 34% of that is recyclable, so it is garbage that will live to see another day.
But, the remaining amount, about 52% … is going to landfills. The largest slice of this pie is ending up in a landfill.
The United States population in 2014 was put at 318.9 million people. Using the amount of trash and a little simple division, we can look at how much trash each American is contributing.
Over the course of a year each person creates 1,618 pounds of trash. For comparison, that’s about the weight of 5 NFL offensive linemen. Or, five of these guys. Those are big fellas.
If you don’t ordinarily measure things in terms of offensive linemen, then another measure which I imagine most people are familiar with is 50 pounds. Fifty pounds, for you savvy travelers, is what you can get away with for a checked bag before you have to pay extra money.
The portion of trash that we, yes, every single one of us, generates each year that goes directly to a landfill is 853 pounds.
That’s not 1, not 2, but 17 fully packed suitcases worth of weight that is trash. Trash that we are burying in the Earth.
I’m going to drill this point home one more time, and then we can move on.
If you look at the number of 1,618 pounds of trash every American generates every year, then what happens if we project that out into the future?
In 10 years, that’s 16,180 pounds. That’s a lot.
And, obviously, that goes up, and up, and up the more years you think ahead. If you look out 40 years ahead, I have a bit of great news from the department of irony – you will have generated about 64,000 pounds of trash which is what a dump truck weighs! Woah! How great!
That’s an awful lot of talk about how much trash we are generating.
The good news is that you can have an impact on this. Consider how much effort you are currently putting into reducing the waste you generate. Do you take a mental log of what you are putting into your trash can? Do you think about how you could make a few small changes to reduce that amount? Even something as simple as just beginning to think about this can make a difference.
I’ll give you an example of a small change that some of you may be able to make starting today.
When you go to a public bathroom that has hand towels, how many do you take? It’s trivial, but it adds up.
Let’s say you use a public bathroom where you are using a disposable hand towel four times a day.
Over the course of one year, if you use one hand towel … that’s 1,460 hand towels.
If you use two hand towels each time … double that.
I’m going to pretend no one here uses three because I’m neurotic and weird and I stare at people who use three thinking ‘who do you think you are? Your hands aren’t that big, pal, nor are they that wet. COME ON.’
And … In case you don’t know this – channel your inner Taylor Swift, shake it off, and now you only need one hand towel.
If you reduce your hand towel usage each time by one, and you do this for the next forty years, that only amounts to either 1.41 pounds less trash. All that extra effort, the hand flicking, the possibility of slightly damp hands … is it worth it?
Let’s revisit that there are 318.9 million people in the United States.
If ALL of us in the United States went from two hand towels to one, that’s about 448 MILLION POUNDS OF TRASH. Gone. Just like that. From one small, little change. 448 million pounds.
If you prefer smaller numbers, that’s 2.2 aircraft carriers.
As I said at the beginning of my speech – my main objective was to have everyone leave here knowing that we generate a lot of trash. Every single person, all 318.9 million US citizens, every single day.
Every week you put out your trash, you come home from work, and you push the empty bin back inside to be filled up again. It’s like magic.
But, that trash isn’t disappearing. It’s all going somewhere.
The good news is that we can improve things. Small changes, start small, look for little ways you can reduce the amount of trash you generate … And then, be proud of that, brag about it, make it something you want to tell your friends about, so that more and more of those 318.9 million trash generators will want to reduce their waste just like you.