How Big is Your Footprint

Have you ever taken the time to consider how large your footprint is? No, not your literal footprint — your environmental footprint. It's a pretty hot topic these days. But on an individual scale, just how much of a footprint do we really leave on the environment? Well, let's take a moment to break it down.

According to a study by the EPA, the U.S. produced 251 million tons of trash in 2012. If you do the math (and remember that the population was only 314 million that year), that equates to 1,598 pounds of trash per year per person, or roughly 4 pounds per day. Gross. That also makes the U.S. the number one trash producer on Earth, a title I'm not sure we should put on our travel brochures. 

So let's divvy that up. These numbers represent the pounds used per person per year.

  • 27.4% in paper products, which equates to 438 pounds, or 1.2 pounds per day
  • 14.5% in food, which equates to 232 pounds, or 0.63 pounds per day
  • 13.5% in yard clippings, which equates to 216 pounds, or 0.59 pounds per day
  • 12.7% in plastic, which equates to 203 pounds, or 0.56 pounds per day
  • 8.9% in metal, which equates to 142 pounds, or 0.40 pounds per day
  • 8.7% in rubber, leather, and textiles, which equates to 139 pounds, or 0.38 pounds per day
  • 6.3% in wood, which equates to 101 pounds, or 0.28 pounds per day
  • 4.6% in glass, which equates to 74 pounds, or 0.20 pounds per day

Some trash isn't so bad. It biodegrades and goes right back to Mother Nature. Things like yard clippings, paper, untreated cardboard, and even food breaks down through the wonderful process of nature. Though truth be told, it's good to recycle paper products. After all, paper does come from trees. Trees while naturally occurring, don't spring up overnight. You can't just build a tree. And we kind of need trees for important things like breathing.

Other trash takes awhile to break down or never breaks down at all. Glass bottles will eventually break down, but it will take a million years to do it. Diapers and plastic water bottles will take 450 years.  Aluminum cans take 200 years to break down. And plastic bags will take 20 years. Even a newspaper needs a good 6 weeks to decompose. But styrofoam and rubber tires? They're here for eternity. 

And why does it matter? To put it simply, it matters because we all only have this one Earth to share. And space is limited. The world may seem vast. But our recovery to waste ratio is upside down. We are producing waste that takes a long time to decompose, but we aren't allowing that waste adequate time to decompose before we produce more waste. Frankly, the Earth won't be able to keep up at the rate we're going unless we recycle and waste less. 

That's where the smaller environmental footprint comes into play. Here's what you can do.

  1.  Recycle - We know. It's time consuming. You have to sort things. And if your trash service doesn't offer recycling services, you actually have to take your recyclables to a recycling center. But maintaining the Earth is super important. Plus, every little bit counts. So, make it fun. Buy brightly colored bins for each recyclable category. Have weekly family competitions to see which family member wastes less or is the most Earth conscious. It doesn't have to be a chore if you make it a game. 
  2. Reuse - Before you toss something out, stop and think. Is that item really junk, or can it be given a new life? Some clothes might be last season to you. But for the person three blocks over, that old blazer or skirt might be the latest fashion trend. Box those old duds up and donate them. Same goes for any furniture you're ready to retire. Have an old tire? Paint it your favorite color and turn it into an outdoor planter. Have old pill bottles? Peel the label off and store your sewing needles and buttons in them. Have an old sweater? If you're a knitter, unravel it and knit something new. With a little creativity, you can upcycle just about anything. 
  3. Avoid the Plastic Bottle - Consider installing a water filter so you can drink water straight from the tap. If you want to take your water with you, invest in a reusable water bottle, preferably BPA free (bisphenol A). That's a chemical found in some plastic products. The problem with BPA is it can leave its pretty packaging and nest inside the beverage or food you intend to ingest. 
  4. Avoid the Plastic Bag - Consider purchasing a reusable shopping bag instead. 
  5. Waste Less - This one is hard. But it's important. Remember everything we're throwing away each year? Two hundred and thirty two pounds per year per person was just in food alone. You can't help but wonder, how many people could that have fed? 

Our individual footprint may seem small, but it leaves its mark on the Earth. See how small you can make your footprint for future generations.