In the Sonoran Desert, where I live, the bizarre is very real. The heat of the sun and the harshness of the environment have forged an amazing assortment of wonderfully complex and adaptive life forms.
The jumping cholla—also known as the teddy bear cholla—resembles a cuddly plant with soft arms which, as you look closer, are completely covered with golden and silvery spines that seem to jump off the plant at the slightest touch. Ouch! And then there are the javelinas that, yes, look very much like wild pigs. But they are actually members of the peccary family, a group of hooved mammals originating not in Eurasia but in South America. And, of course, there is the Boojum tree which must be among the most strange, spiny upside down carrots most people have never seen.
Yes, there are some very strange things to be seen wandering out on the desert floor. But there is also a collection of very strange sights that tug at my mind—strange not because they’ve assumed a curious shape, but because they are so surprisingly common and so out of place: a couple of orange peels, or empty water bottles, streams of paper fragments, an old mattress, and of all things, a used condom hanging from the branch of a creosote bush.
From time to time, the sight of these many and clearly out-of-place things do get me wondering. And I’m forced to conclude that our standard of living may be more the result of our garbage and trash than our vaunted Yankee ingenuity.
This year our personal income in the U.S. will approach 19.1 trillion dollars, averaging about $49,500 per person. At the same time, we will generate nearly 260 million tons of garbage, including all forms of industrial, agricultural and municipal solid wastes. That is about 1,600 pounds of garbage in this year alone for each person living in the United States. My own calculations suggest that we generate enough municipal waste each day to fill 60,000 trucks with garbage.
Among the wastes? Yes, they include the usual stuff we might imagine: old tires, used clothing, construction debris, broken household furniture, and the like. But it also includes everything from unused drugs to significant amounts of food wastes. Every year, for example, vast quantities of pharmaceuticals are thrown away by hospitals and health care centers: an estimated 250 million pounds according to a 2008 Associated Press investigation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we waste one-third of the food produced for human consumption worldwide. In the U.S. that was about 38 million tons in 2014 alone.
And the waste doesn’t end there. This year we will pump about 5.9 billion tons of carbon-dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere as we heat and cool our homes, or power our factories, and take our kids to school. Soil losses are also very large. For every bite of food that we eat, we lose about 6 bites of soil to wind and water erosion. That quickly adds up to 1.9 billion tons of soil loss every year. All totaled, it takes about 1.0 pound of municipal waste, lost soil, and carbon dioxide emissions to produce each dollar of income that maintains our economic well-being and it does not stop there.
The consumptive use of water—from agricultural irrigation to electricity production and industrial processes—swamps all of this. Updating the United States Geological Survey’s 2010 data, it appears we will withdraw about 355 billion gallons of water per day this year. Again, my working calculation suggests that we will lose about one-fourth that amount to sub-surface seepage, evaporation, and other forms of waste. Directly and indirectly, we will squander away an average of 320 tons of water per person to support our “purely economic” well-being.
This incredible level of waste—from the generation of garbage and the huge soil losses to the dumping of pollutants into the atmosphere and the dissipation of our water resources—hurts us in very big ways. Yes, we are running out of room to safely dispose of our garbage and we’re doing very little about it. At the same time, the enormous inefficiencies of our system of production seriously weaken our economy—perhaps much more than our tax burdens and the cost of labor. Given that magnitude of waste, the question arises: Shouldn’t we look harder to better understand how big of a problem this may actually be? Socially and economically, both today and tomorrow?
*Note: The numbers discussed here are presented as a hopefully useful thought experiment to understand the large amount of waste that underpins our economic well-being. In effect, the numbers are more for insight than precision. At the same time, we will update these estimates over the next several weeks to be sure the information and insights are reasonably accurate.