During the 1930s Depression, Americans lacked jobs and even food. But after WWII, with fast developing technology and affluence, consumerism exploded, starting a tremendous proliferation of waste. Disregard for the natural environment went along with prosperity: more and faster highways, with huge cars and trucks guzzling cheap gasoline and emitting pollution in the atmosphere and ground water. Who wanted public transportation or trains? And why not two or more cars, one for each family member, with a new car every year, dumping the old one and filling the countryside with junkyards?
Why not have a TV in each room, and upgrade them frequently? Since the 1980s, computers, cell phones, ipods and endless other electronic gadgets are purchased and discarded in vast quantities – not to mention the billions of CDs and DVDs that dont disintegrate and will pollute the Earth forever.
In 2000 alone, Americans generated almost 250 million tons of solid waste (expected to increase 20% every five years) – much more than any other country. The average American household generates about 7 lbs. of solid waste per day. Some 15% of American waste is incinerated (with dubious emissions), and less than 20% is supposedly recycled. The rest is buried in landfills or just dumped illegally. But it takes energy, labor and money to make new products from recycled ones. Its much simpler to cut down trees for new lumber or for the incredible amount of paper used, and wasted, daily.
Production of cheap plastics is a great American contribution to the world. The food industry consumes much of them: Stores sell prepared foods, vegetables, fruit and water in plastic containers. Plastic cutlery, glasses and plates prevail in most cheap restaurants and cafeterias – and now even on airplanes. (If not plastic, its styrofoam or paper.) The recent chic is plastic or surgical gloves worn by food store employees and airplane stewardesses!
The medical industry has become one of the largest producers of waste: disposable syringes, gloves, hats, shoe-covers, paper-sheets, robes, masks, diapers, you name it – in masses!
The next most wasteful industry may be packaging. Forests are decimated mostly for lumber, but paper and cardboard are also voracious consumers. In theory boxes and paper can be recycled, but what about the endless foam peanuts and bubblewrap, styrofoam packaging, miles of plastic tape, and trillions of plastic bags?
From its start in Oregon 38 years ago, recycling legislation is moving slowly. Meanwhile waste accumulates exponentially. Los Angeles alone has 10 landfills, with 90 more in the surrounding area. Puente Hills in Whittier, CA, the largest in the USA, accepted 4 million tons of waste in 2005. New Yorkers generate 26,000 tons of trash per day, some of it still going to the infamous Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Every New York corner displays mountains of bagged garbage almost nightly – but as many bags adorn illegally the countryside.
Huge quantities of waste end up in the oceans whose currents circulate it. Industries and cities empty toxic sewage in rivers and the sea; boats and monstrous cruise ships routinely dump their trash in the water. Fish and other ocean life ingest our trash and chemicals, and many die trapped by our discards.
The 1.375 billion tons of waste produced yearly by the U.S. livestock industry could be converted into manure for the land, instead of contaminating the waters. But there is no satisfactory solution for the 279 million tons of hazardous, toxic or radioactive waste – half of it wastewater managed in treatment units. With Yucca Mountain, NV, contested, 60,000 cubic meters of radioactive nuclear waste have been buried the last decade in a Carlsbad, NM, repository. Will it be secure from earthquakes and leakage?
Americans are not just wasting or endangering the Earths resources – forests, oil, or water. U.S. cities are using lighting and air-conditioning to an extravagant degree. And the digital age is going to increase enormously the demand for electricity. True, an average car trip to the library uses 4,500 times the energy of a Google search (0.2 grams of CO 2 ), while a page of newsprint consumes 350 times more energy. Yet from 2000 to 2005, the total electricity used by data centers in America has doubled, and in 2009 data centers worldwide consume annually more energy than all of Sweden. As with nuclear energy, the U.S. has exported a new product, and waste, to the entire world and the future…