While America may be on the cutting edge of many things, most consider Europe to be the world leader in waste management. And considering how much trash Americans generate each year, the nation’s lack of innovation in the waste-management field has become a significant concern for some.
The differences in the European and American approaches to waste involve more than basic differences in production rates and disposal methods. In fact, the most powerful contrast between the two cultures is how each thinks about consumption and waste.
With this in mind, how can Americans begin to visualize their way to a greener life?
Let’s face it, Americans love their cars; they always have. The reasons for this are due partly to geography. Unlike Europeans, who tend to live in compact communities, Americans are more spread out, which makes creating comprehensive and convenient transportation systems impossibly expensive. Further, the public rail and bus routes that do exist are often not comprehensive enough to be truly practical.
In contrast, public transportation is the norm in most European cities. Because of the lack of parking and narrow roads, driving a car isn’t as convenient as jumping on the subway, which will quickly and efficiently take people almost anywhere they need to go.
So, while Europeans are busy financing and using their rail and bus systems (or biking), Americans are dreaming of the independence afforded by owning a car. This speaks to the American desire privacy and demonstrates the value that Americans put on the ability to decide when and how they want to travel—outside of someone else’s schedule. If people can easily drive their own car or get an Uber ride instead of taking a bus, why wouldn’t they?
Particularly in northern Europe, people are considerably more aware of the environment than in the states. Similar to abiding by traffic rules or finding a trash can for garbage, many Europeans think about being green as a social contract they cannot break.
For Americans, though, disposing of waste in a sustainable manner can feel optional—like a suggestion—rather than an implicit expectation or civil responsibility. There is less guilt involved because Americans see others also being environmentally irresponsible.
However, if the cultural norm in America regarding waste disposal resembled the views of the European populace, the likelihood of noncompliance would be far less. Europeans frown on those who disregard what is best for the environment, and civic reform is often greatly assisted by social pressure.
America, purely through its geographic reality, enjoys the gift of space. This is something many people in Europe know little about. Because of this expansive luxury, Americans often don’t have any contact with their waste disposal sites. In fact, a majority of Americans have probably never even seen one.
This ignorance of the realities of waste disposal contributes to an overly consumeristic lifestyle—one that generates the highest per capita emissions in the world. When garbage simply “disappears,” there is no reason to change one’s habits. In contrast, Europeans are forced to literally face their waste-management choices every day, as their disposal sites are often not far from where they live.
America enjoys a rich infrastructure that promotes waste and requires little accountability. Unlike places like Zurich, where workers pick up garbage infrequently, large American cities can afford to pay people to sweep up debris around the clock. Americans have come to expect this. It then becomes a bit of a “chicken and the egg” scenario: is constant trash collection the product of wasteful people? Or are wasteful people the product of constant trash collection? Either way, Americans must find ways to break the cycle.
In thinking about America’s next steps in the realm of waste management, perhaps it’s helpful to remember that all change starts with a shift in mentality. Unlike Europeans, who have lived within established nations for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, America is a new nation with a whole set of unique issues.
While it’s safe to say there is certainly room for improvement, America has made some meaningful changes in recent years regarding recycling, composting, and incineration. Managing a country’s waste properly is a bit of a learning curve, and it may take some time before the mindset of the population evolves. The question is, how long can the world afford to wait?