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Responsible Consumption and Production in the US
Responsible Consumption and Production in Context
Traditional consumption and production patterns are the main driving force of the global economy and rely on the use of the natural environment and resources in a way that continues to have destructive impacts on the planet (UN).
It’s estimated that the global population will reach 9.6 billion by 2050. At that point, the equivalent of almost three planets would be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles (UN).
Sustainable Consumption and Production is about doing more and better with less – the use of services and products that meet basic needs and improve quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials, as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations (UN).
- 30-40% of the food supply is wasted every year while tens of millions of people go hungry (RTS). You can check details by state in the interactive map included in this report.
- An average of 4.9 pounds of trash is created per person each day, only 1/3 of which is recycled or composted (EPA).
Food Waste in the US
In 2019, where 35+ million people faced food insecurity (USDA ERS), an estimated 35% of all food in the US was unsold or uneaten (surplus food) – totaling over $400 billion (ReFED). With the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, addressing food waste is even more important as the number of food-insecure people is expected to top 50 million (RTS).
- 16% of food is lost at the farm it was produced at (RTS)
- A Penn State research revealed that U.S. households waste about 1/3 of the food they purchased every year – and that higher-income households with healthier diets wasted more food than lower-income families (Forbes).
There are many drivers behind the challenge of food waste in the US, that occur at all stages of the supply chain (RTS).
- At the Farm: the amount of food produced and harvested is heavily impacted by the climate and weather, consumer demand, and market prices.
- At the Store and at Home: challenges exist with overstocking products compared to demand. Physical standards that exclude ‘ugly’ or imperfect foods from being displayed at stores, and confusing expiration date labeling increases the amount of edible food that is thrown out – these labels are both non-standardized and relate less to food safety than is commonly assumed (Vox).
Waste Management and Recycling Challenges in the US
According to the latest EPA data available, almost 5 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) – trash – is created by each person in the US every day, for a total of over 290 million tons each year. Food waste makes up the largest percentage (24%) of waste in landfills, followed by plastic (18%), and paper (12%).
In 2018, the date of the most recent data, the recycling of paper products saved the equivalent of 33 million cars worth of carbon emissions.
Just 1/4 (23.5%) of waste in the US is recycled. 17% is composted or processed by other methods. Approximately 12% is used to produce energy.
146 million tons (50%) of waste ends up in our nation’s landfills. However, this is an improvement considering 94% of the waste ended up in landfills in 1960.
National Waste Generation and Recycling Over Time
One challenge to improving waste management in the US is that we use a single recycling system, which is easily misunderstood and results in non-recyclable materials being placed in recycling bins. When this happens, it is often too costly for items to be sorted at facilities, so the entire batch of materials goes to the landfill (EcoWatch). In fact, it’s estimated that less than 10% of plastic thrown in bins in the last 40 years has actually been recycled (EcoWatch).
The latest data shows that over 30% of trash and garbage in the US is recycled, while between 30-40% of the entire US food supply is wasted each year. Explore details in our interactive tool included with this report, where you can view key statistics by state or by a group of states.
The US lacks the infrastructure to properly recycle and as a result, it exports close to 50% of recyclable materials (Smithsonian).
Private companies now own 50% of US landfills, and the total number of sites has decreased by 74% since the 1970s. Combined with the decrease in countries willing to accept US waste and recycling, issues are arising with where and what to do with all our trash (Bloomberg).
Explore more using the interactive tool sponsored by Footprint, Inc.
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wasted in 2019
The Negative Effects of Waste in the US
Food waste negative effects:
- Contributes 18% of the methane (a greenhouse gas) emissions from US landfills (EPA).
- 2.6% of all US greenhouse gas emissions (NRDC)
- uses 21% of the water for agriculture (NRDC)
- 18% of farm fertilizer (NRDC)
- 19% of US cropland (NRDC)
Improper waste management negative effects:
- Municipal solid waste (household and consumer trash) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States (EPA).
- Generation and management of hazardous wastes, in particular, can contaminate land, air, and water and negatively affect human health and environmental conditions.
Plastic waste is particularly problematic for rivers, oceans, and other water bodies. Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by plastics (National Geographic). But animals are not the only ones impacted – it’s estimated that each person consumes 200mg of plastic — the equivalent of one credit card — each week through their food and water (WWF).
The Economic Impact of Responsible Consumption and Production
Garbage fuels a $67 billion industry across the U.S. (Bloomberg) and communities on the west coast are spending more than $520 million dollars a year to combat litter and prevent the trash from becoming marine debris (EPA).
The average US family wastes at least $1,600 on fruits and vegetables that end up being thrown out (RTS), and the latest estimates from ReFED for the total value of food wasted annually in the US is over $400 billion.
Energy efficiency is also an important area to address to achieve sustainable consumption and production. Learn more about the state of energy in the US .
The United Nations Impact Indicators related to UN SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
The United Nations has defined 11 Targets and 13 Indicators to track progress towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goal of Responsible Consumption and Production by 2030. The data below takes a look at key indicators in the U.S. related to waste management, food waste, state laws for single-use plastic bags, recycling, and more through the lens of government and social sector data.
The indicators for success outlined by the U.N. include (SDG Tracker):
- Reducing per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains by 50%
- Increase the quantity of municipal waste (household trash) that is recycled.
- Decrease the amount of municipal waste (household trash) produced.
- Responsible management of chemicals and other hazardous waste that impacts human and environmental health.
Interactive Report Notes:
* Waste refers to Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)—trash or garbage—the everyday items we use and then throw away, such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint, and batteries.
Interactive charts sources:
- Groceries Wasted: US Packaging and Wrapping & X4Impact Analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis, US Department of Commerce Personal Expenditures by State 2019 and Economic Research Service U.S. Department Of Agriculture Food Loss Estimates.
- Hazardous Waste Sites: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund National Priority List 2021
- Plastic Bags State Legislation: National Conference of State Legislatures 2021.
- Waste Generation and Recycling 1960-2018: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Advancing Sustainable Materials Management 2018 Tables and Figures
- Nonprofit-related data: X4Impact analysis of over 600,000 forms 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service - IRS 2018-2021
- Private and Government Grants: X4Impact 2021
- USDA ERS – Food Security in the US
- ReFED – US Food Waste
- RTS – Food Waste Guide 2021
- EcoWatch – Material Waste
- EcoWatch – Recycling
- Forbes – Household Food Waste
- Bloomberg – US Garbage Flow
- NRDC – US Food Waste
- EPA – America’s Food Waste Problem
- Smithsonian – US Plastic Waste
- Vox – The lie of ‘expired’ food
- EPA – Waste Management National Overview
- WWF – Plastic Consumption
- National Geographic – Plastic Pollution
- EPA – Mismanaged Trash
- UN – Sustainable Consumption and Production
- UN – SDG 12