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Fast Facts on the Human Footprint

Where Does All the Stuff Go?
Our human footprint doesn’t end after we buy and consume things; the final impact occurs when we discard items, and we Americans discard four-fifths of a ton of trash per person, per year. Although the United States is home to just 5 percent of the world's population, it generates 30 percent of its trash. The average American creates a staggering 4.5 pounds of garbage daily. Almost everything we do creates waste, and as a society we are currently producing more waste than ever before.

Here are the numbers: Americans generated 251 million tons of trash in 2006, the most recent year for which the Environmental Protection Agency has data. Our per capita trash disposal rate was 4.6 pounds per person, per day. Sixty-five percent came from residences, while 35 percent came from schools and commercial locations such as hospitals and businesses.

Where does it all end up? Fifty-five percent gets buried in landfills, 33 percent gets recycled, and 12.5 percent goes to incinerators.

Collecting and transporting trash and recyclables is a mammoth task. According to the National Solid Waste Management Association, the solid waste industry employs 368,000 people. They use 148,000 vehicles to move garbage to 1,754 landfills and 87 incinerators. They also pick up recyclables at curbside in 8,660 communities and take them to 545 materials recovery facilities for sorting. Solid waste is big business to the tune of about $47 billion in annual revenue.

“Many of our environmental problems are unintended results of activities designed to improve the quality of human life.”

Source: National Geographic, “The Human Footprint: Where does all the stuff go?” by Dan Kulpinski.

Materials and Resources

Life Cycle Assessment

Cradle to Cradle

The Paper Lifecycle

The Paper Calculator by the Environmental Defense Fund

The Story of Stuff