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Visualizing What the World Thinks About Waste

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What the World Thinks About Waste

Visualizing What the World Thinks About Waste

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Waste is a seemingly inseparable part of modern life.

In every industrialized society, humans consume many goods ranging from fresh food to automobiles. Inevitably, the majority of these goods are associated with waste that ends up clogging up our landfills, recycling systems, or even our oceans.

While garbage is widely universal, our perceptions on it vary from culture to culture – and when it comes to thinking about the future of our planet, these differences are important to think about.

Waste by Country

Today’s infographic comes to us from Raconteur, and it shows global attitudes towards waste, recycling, and the environment.

Using data from select countries, here is the amount of solid waste created per capita on a daily basis:

CountryDaily Solid Waste (per capita)
United States2.58 kg
Canada2.33 kg
Australia2.23 kg
Germany2.11 kg
United Kingdom1.79 kg
Japan1.71 kg
Mexico1.24 kg
China1.02 kg
India0.34 kg

The U.S. leads the way in waste, but Western countries like Canada, Germany, and Australia are not far behind.

In India and China, waste numbers are low per capita right now, but they will continue to creep closer to Western figures as their economies further urbanize and increase consumption.

Global Attitudes Towards Waste

About 72% of plastic packaging does not get recovered at all, with 40% of all waste going to the landfill and 32% leaking out of the collection system (not collected, illegally dumped, or mismanaged).

With this in mind, who is responsible for reducing plastic packaging?

  • 20% of global respondents say that the companies producing packaged goods should be responsible
  • 16% say the government should be responsible
  • 10% say the companies selling packaged goods should be responsible
  • 8% say consumers
  • 37% say all the above are equally responsible
  • 9% say other, including having no opinion or being undecided

Interestingly, looking at individual countries reveals different perceptions than broader, global norms.

Attitudes Differ by Country

The infographic highlights the specific differences in attitudes towards waste between a multitude of countries.

While one expects big differences between countries like China and Germany, it can be shown that opinions on waste vary even between geographically proximate countries with similar levels of economic development. In South Korea and Japan, for example, waste attitudes differ considerably.

Per person, Japan produces 1.71 kg of solid waste per day, about 38% more than South Korea (1.24 kg).

South Koreans are more worried about the use of non-recyclable packaging, with 85% of people expressing concern about the issue. Roughly 60% of Japanese people felt the same.

To address this issue, 52% of Koreans said that they are willing to stop buying goods that have non-recyclable packaging – and only 20% in Japan concurred.

Even views of something broader like climate change differ between the two countries. In Japan, 38% of the population sees climate change as being caused by human activity, while 72% of Koreans see climate change the same way.

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Environment

The Most Polluted Cities in the U.S.

What are the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to data from the American Lung Association’s 2024 State of the Air Report?

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Teaser image for an infographic showing the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to the American Lung Association's 2024 State of the Air report.

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The following content is sponsored by National Public Utilities Council

The Most Polluted U.S. Cities in 2024

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually, and could cost the global economy between $18–25 trillion by 2060 in annual welfare costs, or roughly 4–6% of world GDP.

And with predictions that 7 in 10 people will make their homes in urban centers by mid-century, cities are fast becoming one of the frontlines in the global effort to clear the air.

In this visualization, we use 2024 data from the State of the Air report from the American Lung Association to show the most polluted cities in the United States.

What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a complex mixture of gases, particles, and liquid droplets and can have a variety of sources, including wildfires and cookstoves in rural areas, and road dust and diesel exhaust in cities. 

There are a few kinds of air pollution that are especially bad for human health, including ozone and carbon monoxide, but here we’re concerned with fine particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5 for short. 

The reason for the focus is because at that small size, particulate matter can penetrate the bloodstream and cause all manner of havoc, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and chronic pulmonary disease. 

The American Lung Association has set an annual average guideline of 9 µg/m³ for PM2.5, however, the World Health Organization has set a much more stringent limit of 5 µg/m³.

The 21 Worst Polluted Cities in the U.S.

Here are the top 21 most polluted cities in the U.S., according to their annual average PM2.5 concentrations:

RankCity, StateAnnual average concentration, 2020-2022 (µg/m3)
1Bakersfield, CA18.8
2Visalia, CA18.4
3Fresno, CA17.5
4Eugene, OR14.7
5Bay Area, CA14.3
6Los Angeles, CA14.0
7Sacramento, CA13.8
8Medford, OR13.5
9Phoenix, AZ12.4
10Fairbanks, AK12.2
11Indianapolis, IN11.9
12Yakima, WA11.8
13Detroit, MI11.7
T14Chico, CA11.6
T14Spokane, WA11.6
15Houston, TX11.4
16El Centro, CA11.1
17Reno, NV11.0
18Pittsburgh, PA10.9
T19Kansas City, KS10.8
T19Las Vegas, NV10.8

Note: The American Lung Association uses Core Based Statistical Areas in its city and county rankings, which have been shortened here to the area’s principal city, or metro area in the case of the Bay Area, CA.

Six of the top seven cities are in California, and four in the state’s Central Valley, a 450-mile flat valley that runs parallel to the Pacific coast, and bordered by the Coast and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. As a result, when pollution from the big population centers on the coast is carried inland by the wind—cities #5 and #6 on the list—it tends to get trapped in the valley. 

Bakersfield (#1), Visalia (#2), and Fresno (#3) are located at the drier and hotter southern end of the valley, which is worse for air quality. The top three local sources of PM2.5 emissions in 2023 were farms (20%), forest management / agricultural waste burning (20%), and road dust (14%). 

Benefit to Economy

While the health impacts are generally well understood, less well known are the economic impacts.

Low air quality negatively affects worker productivity, increases absenteeism, and adds both direct and indirect health care costs. But the flip side of that equation is that improving air quality has measurable impacts to the wider economy. The EPA published a study that calculated the economic benefits of each metric ton of particulate matter that didn’t end up in the atmosphere, broken down by sector. 

SectorBenefits per metric ton
Residential Woodstoves$429,220
Refineries$333,938
Industrial Boilers$174,229
Oil and Natural Gas Transmission$125,227
Electricity Generating Units$124,319
Oil and Natural Gas$88,838

At the same time, the EPA recently updated a cost-benefit analysis of the Clean Air Act, the main piece of federal legislation governing air quality, and found that between 1990 and 2020 it cost the economy roughly $65 billion, but also provided $2 trillion in benefits

Benefit to Business

But that’s at the macroeconomic level, so what about for individual businesses?

For one, employees like to breathe clean air and will choose to work somewhere else, given a choice. A 2022 Deloitte case study revealed that nearly 70% of highly-skilled workers said air quality was a significant factor in choosing which city to live and work in.

At the same time, air quality can impact employer-sponsored health care premiums, by reducing the overall health of the risk pool. And since insurance premiums averaged $7,590 per year in 2022 for a single employee, and rose to $21,931 for a family, that can add up fast. 

Consumers are also putting their purchase decisions through a green lens, while ESG, triple-bottom-line, and impact investing are putting the environment front and center for many investors.

And if the carrot isn’t enough for some businesses, there is the stick. The EPA recently gave vehicle engine manufacturer Cummins nearly two billion reasons to help improve air quality, in a settlement the agency is calling “the largest civil penalty in the history of the Clean Air Act and the second largest environmental penalty ever.”

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