We’re Number #1! —in the amount of stuff we consume and the waste we produce in the USA. How does 1000 pounds a week sound? That’s our per capita total weekly material throughput, adding commercial and industrial activity to our household consumption. And making and disposing of all this stuff creates 45 billion pounds of waste of one kind or another every day—or about a third of the world’s trash. (97 percent of this waste is generated by agriculture, commerce and industry; 3 percent by households.) Read all about it in The Average American (and what you can do if you don't want to be "average").
What is all this stuff?
Every day in the USA, 300 million pounds of food—or about 40 percent of what we produce—goes to waste. This has a big environmental cost: Food production consumes 10 percent of the total US energy budget, uses half of US land, and sucks up 80 percent of freshwater we consume—including from deep aquifers that are fast being depleted.
These are just the things that hold the stuff, but we use a lot of them: 100 billion plastic bags every year, along with 16 billion paper coffee cups, over 8 billion K-cups (for individual Keurig coffee servings), and 30 billion bottles of water, of which less than 30 percent are recycled (and remember: a recycled water bottle comes back as carpet or a park bench, not as a water bottle—so a new one is still made from virgin plastic).
And aluminum cans. The world produces 250 billion of them a year, requiring 3 percent of the world’s electrical energy. In the US, we toss 45 billion of them into the trash (a recycling rate of just over 55 percent) in spite of a 95 percent energy savings gained by recycling aluminum. See more on aluminum—including the rainforests being razed for dams to generate energy to make it—here.
Toxins Our society generates 34 million metric tons of hazardous waste annually—or 250 pounds per citizen, and 4.1 billion pounds of toxic emissions and other releases, including 400,000 tons of lead and lead compounds.
400 million electronic devices are trashed every year in the United States. Recycling rates range from 10 (cell phones) to 18 percent (computers and televisions). This is in spite of the fact that one ton of recycled computers yields more gold than 17 tons of gold ore.
The US imports 20 billion items of clothing annually and the average person in the US discards 68 pounds of clothing per year. Even items sent to resale shops often end up as rags—or are baled and send abroad to be sold, where they often undermine local textile industries.
Lots for some, and little for the rest
When it comes to consumption, there is a vast disparity between the "have's" and "have-not's" in everything from paper to energy to food. The bad news is that they all want to consume like we do—the worse news is what this will do to a planet with limited resources. Check out NCP's Consuming Appetites to compare consumer practices between "us" and "them", and here's a good summary of the effects of poverty on nearly half the world's people.