Managing Waste in the US

Feb 8, 2024

This post is the first in a series on the “reduce, reuse, recycle” waste hierarchy. The series examines contemporary waste management practices in the US, how we dealt with waste in the past, and what we can do today to make an impact on waste reduction now and in the future.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

While there are some questions about the exact origin of the phrase, it came into popular use during the early 1970s alongside the first Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The three Rs are a hierarchy of steps to take to reduce waste. Step one is to reduce your consumption, followed by reusing and repurposing what you can, and finally recycling what you cannot reduce or reuse. Of the three, recycling has had the most success – 63% of Americans report they have a recycling container at home. Yet, the Environmental Protection Agency reports only 38% of our waste is now diverted from landfills to recycling and composting facilities, while 62% still finds its way to a landfill or incinerator.

Despite the popularity of recycling, the amount of waste each American sends to a landfill hasn’t changed all that much since the three Rs were introduced. In 1960, the average American generated 2.68 pounds of waste per day and nearly all of it – 2.5 pounds – ended up in a landfill. In 2018, the amount of daily waste per person had increased to 4.9 pounds, but the amount sent to a landfill or incinerator remained about the same at 2.4 pounds. Over that period, the total amount of waste sent to the landfills and incinerators has increased by 77%. Today, due to population growth and the increase in waste per person, we send 146,120,000 tons of waste annually to landfills compared to 82,510,000 tons in 1960.

Where is all the waste coming from?

If recycling is so popular, why isn’t it having more of an impact? Much of it is due to lack of sustainable options in packaging, purchasing, and disposing of food and goods – in other words, while many people want to do the right thing in terms of waste reduction, most of us simply don’t have access to the tools that would allow us to do so.

Stay tuned for more

Reading this may make you feel like doing anything about our waste problem is impossible or futile, but things were not always this way. The other two Rs – reduce and reuse – were once a part of daily life in the US. The next post in this series looks at how those who came before us dealt with household waste and why we came to find ourselves in the state we are in today.

Joie Grandbois is Historic New England’s Sustainability Coordinator

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In September 2023, Historic New England adopted a climate action statement and four climate action goals. These serve as the organization’s guide for ongoing planning. Read more about it.