While often singled out for their excess, Americans are no more than average wasters today. In 1965, an average American threw away four times as much as a Western European. Today, it is Danes, Dutch, Swiss and Germans who generate the most waste.
That the United States has been pushed off the podium is, in part, because other societies have caught up with it as they have gotten richer and bought more packaged, processed foods—87 percent of packaging is for food and drink. In that sense, everyone is a bit more American now.
What is less often appreciated is that Americans have also become a bit more European, returning their bottles, composting more, and leaving leaves and cut grass on the lawn. Some 20 American states imposed a ban on organic garden waste in the early 1990s. Such measures played a significant role in overcoming the landfill crisis of the 1980s, symbolized by the notorious odyssey of the garbage barge Mobro in 1987, which set off from Islip, Long Island, only to be refused harbor first in North Carolina and then in Belize, and to end up virtually back where it had started, in New York, where its waste was eventually incinerated.
Waste, these divergent national trends show, cannot be treated as shorthand for national consumerism. Consumer cultures vary. People can be thrifty with money (the Germans and the Swiss) yet throw away more than people who live on credit (Americans). Germans go through a lot of plastic (5.5 million tons a year) but also recycle a lot of it (42 percent). It is, similarly, wrong to imagine a natural affinity between making things and caring for them at the end of their lives, on the one side, and between a service-leisure society and wastefulness on the other. Britons and Americans started to recycle more at the very time they stopped making cars and clothes.