Last spring I received a call from Devi Peri, Education Coordinator for Marin Recycling. A customer wanted some information on plastics. How much does the average American throw away every year?
This sounded like an easy enough question, but where does one begin to find the answer? We all have a rough sense that there’s a lot of plastic out there in the world. We see it in too many places. Here’s an extreme concentration of plastic, in the Citarum River:
Fortunately, I remembered that the EPA publishes a report every two years on Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), the stuff that we use and throw away. “These materials,” according to the EPA, “range from packaging, food scraps, and grass clippings, to old sofas, computers, tires, and refrigerators.” (MSW does not include industrial, hazardous, or construction waste.) In 2005, the average American threw away 4.5 pounds of MSW every day, a rate which has held nearly constant since the 1990’s. In 2007, that rate rose slightly to 4.6 pounds per day. (We recycle or compost about 1.5 pounds of that total daily.)
Doing some math with other tables in the EPA report for 2005 (Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures) and referring to the US Census, I came up with an estimate of 186 pounds per person per year thrown away, not recycled.
Armed with this information, Devi’s caller, a man named Sierra Salin, constructed a costume for the Fairfax Festival Parade. It was really a kind of anti-float: about 90 pounds of plastic, representing the weight of what the average American throws away in half a year, which he then dragged behind him for the length of the parade (about half a mile). Here’s what he looked like:
This year, Sierra went at it again, picking up waste plastic at Marin Sanitary Service (the parent organization of Marin Recycling):
After the parade, his daughter wanted to try hauling the costume, or display, or whatever it was. The expression on her face says a lot about the dismay that we feel in our heart of hearts as we watch the growing load of plastic in the world:
Joanna Macy reminds us that we need to embrace the grief that we feel when we bear witness to the suffering of the world. Having done so, she says, we can move on to constructive action. Sierra and his daughter have not only embraced the grief, they have dragged it in full public view. May we all wake up and take constructive action soon!