America’s Garbage ‘Problem’ Concocted by Trashy Data

Too often, environmental analysis is garbage-in, garbage-out, treating readers with lopsided data presented to support a predetermined conclusion. To fit the narrative that the US has an unsustainable trash problem, a July report by the global risk analysis group Verisk Maplecroft emphasizes that the US is responsible for 12 percent of the world’s trash, despite only having 4 percent of the world’s population. Despite the report’s findings and pessimistic take on the US, America does just fine in proper waste disposal and can successfully take out its own trash with minimal environmental consequences. Regulations on plastics, discussed in the report and trumpeted endlessly by environmental groups and international governmental organizations such as the European Union (EU) and United Nations, would only mean higher prices and worse products for consumers.

The report claims that the global trash crisis is “primarily driven by plastics.” This narrative plays right into the environmental left’s drive to ban plastic products and stick consumers with costly, inferior alternatives. Already, the left-leaning video news outlet NowThis has piled on, excoriating the US for having a trash problem and failing to take action to reduce its “waste footprint.” But according to more rigorous analysis, the United States – and other Western countries – largely keep their trash out of ecology’s way.

According to a 2018 analysis by University of Oxford scholars Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, high-income countries in North America (including the US) and most of Europe keep their used plastic “stored in secure, closed landfills. Across such countries almost no plastic waste is considered inadequately managed.” Contrast this to the situation “across many countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, [where] between 80-90 percent of plastic waste is inadequately disposed of, and therefore at risk of polluting rivers and oceans.”

The Verisk Maplecroft report does correctly point out that America only recycles about a third of its waste. But that ignores promising alternatives such as clean incineration, which turns waste into electricity on a large scale complete with comprehensive safeguards against pollution (i.e. carbon injections to absorb heavy metals, dioxins and furans). The old argument about incineration being terrible for the environment no longer holds; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that burns emit far less sulfur dioxide, mercury, and dioxins than they did thirty years ago. And of course, it doesn’t make sense to recycle everything anyway (as opposed to leaving it in the trash heap).

Sure, even countries with very competent waste management systems can always do better. But there comes a point when the benefits of “doing something” would impose substantial costs on the population, with pollution barely budging downward. Paper straws cost at least five times more than plastic straws, and costs quickly add up when consumers in the US and EU likely use a combined 400 million straws per day.

Using a back of the envelope calculation, consumers across the developed world would have to shell out a total of $2 billion more per year on straws alone. These resources could’ve been used for other things such as feeding the homeless or helping opioid addicts get the treatment they need. Instead, policies are sucking this money out of the economy to reach an unattainable standard that experts agree won’t make a dent in the global plastics crisis. Additionally, paper straws are inherently less reliable than their traditional counterparts, and are impossible for many disabled persons to use. Meanwhile, alternatives such as metal straws can actually be dangerous (in addition to making that cringey clanking sound on the teeth). In fact, according to a recent news report, a woman died from being impaled by a metal straw.

But, fueled by alarming photos of suffering animals and littered coastline that negate any nuance, these sorts of environmental calls to action seem to take place in every generation. First there was Rachel Carson’s crusade against the popular pesticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which Carson claimed was wreaking havoc on human and animal health. The truth was far more complicated, and the government DDT bans promulgated as a result of Carson’s anecdote-heavy work led to increased malaria rates in India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa.

This generation, armed with of pictures of sea turtles with plastic straws affixed to their noses, has prompted calls for action to ban or severely limit the use of plastics. Activists have pinpointed a legitimate problem; plastic in the ocean can have a terrible impact on marine life. But they seem unable to identify the real source of the issue, which is developing countries in Asia and Africa. It is simply not politically correct to blame developing countries for a problem when the United States is a good boogey man.

Instead of jumping down the rabbit hole of plastic prohibition and expensive recycling initiatives, policymakers should work to curb pollution at its source. Poor and developing countries chronically underinvest in waste management and anti-littering enforcement because they’re focusing on problems more immediate to them such as hunger, strife, and disease. Jumpstarting development in these countries won’t be easy, but the least policymakers in the European Union and the US can do is encourage the exchange of goods without tariffs and trade restrictions. African countries are already taking the first step in this process, having recently formed a free-trade area across the continent.

These steps are far more promising than fear mongering over waste in developed countries and pursuing misguided policies that would cost consumers dearly. Policymakers should take a long, hard look at the evidence, instead of jumping to misguided conclusions based on trashy data sources.

Ross Marchand is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. He focuses on a range of issues, ranging from health-care reform to internet regulation to Postal Service-related issues. Ross is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship at George Mason University, where he received his MA in economics in 2016. He has interned for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, analyzing and blogging on a variety of public policy issues.
Catalyst articles by Ross Marchand