Having long been branded a consumer-based society, Americans have been said to bite off more than they can chew – both metaphorically and literally speaking. According to Affluenza, Americans spend almost two thirds of their total income on consumer goods these days, with the amount spent on jewelry, watches and shoes exceeding that of higher education, at $100 billion and $99 billion respectively. Nearly 30 percent of Americans purchase Christmas presents for their pets. Additionally, Americans spend as much money on auto maintenance as on religious and welfare activities.
However, defining overconsumption itself is highly subjective. What counts as overconsumption? Behind the allegations of America’s overconsumption is a hidden message: there are “right” things to spend on and “wrong” things to spend on. Those who say that Americans are overconsuming are basing their claims on the belief that it is better to spend on higher education than on jewelry, watches and shoes, for example. Is it always a more reasonable way of consumption to spend money on religious and welfare services versus spending the same amount of money on auto maintenance?
Ultimately, the debate about consumption boils down to each individual’s values. A dollar spent, regardless of what it was spent on, is still the same amount of consumption. This begs the question, who has the right to accuse anyone of overconsumption if they happen to hold different values? Each person simply wants to spend their money in a way that is meaningful to their life.
That being said, Americans are still generating large amounts of wastage from consuming more than they can handle, usually significantly more than the rest of the world. A single child born in the United States will have a greater effect on the environment than a dozen children born in a developing country. If someone from a developing country moved to the United States, they would likely consume more simply by being there and using food, water and resources, even if they tried to save as much energy as possible. How can this be? What are some aspects in which Americans have been consuming more than what is recommended?
Americans have the highest garbage production per capita compared to any other nation. It is estimated that by age 75, the average American will have generated 52 tons of garbage. Annually, 840,000 tons of plastic plates and cups, 3.4 million tons of diapers, 8.2 million tons of clothing and footwear, and 910,000 tons of towels, sheets and pillowcases are sent to landfills. Even so, this amount of garbage is not the entirety of America’s waste. Nearly half of the total garbage is actually sent to be recycled or burned to regenerate energy. With the dwindling amount of land available for burying trash, America has made efforts to reduce the percentage of waste that ends up in landfills, opting for treating garbage and recycling it where possible.
Notably, America has not been consuming and generating garbage mindlessly. Although the average amount of waste per person has increased from 2.68 pounds per day in 1960 to 4.48 pounds per day in 2015, this number has actually been declining from the 4.74 pounds per day in 2000. While it may be unlikely that the amount of garbage produced will go back to what it was in the 1960s just yet, Americans may be on the right track there.
Americans have been consuming more meat than ever, which can be partly attributed to a recent focus on health, resulting in more people favoring meat instead of carbohydrates. While the United States government recommends that each person consume five to six and a half ounces of meat a day, some people are consuming almost ten ounces of meat a day.
Additionally, the breakdown of each type of meat has drastically shifted from the past. While beef used to be one of the most popular meats in America, the most consumed meat has now changed to chicken, possibly due to a change in people’s diets and the awareness of health concerns related to consumption of red meat.
In 2017, each American consumed an average of 48.8 kilograms of chicken, 25.8 kilograms of beef, 23.6 kilograms of pork and 0.4 kilograms of mutton. The rising meat industries have grown with the popularity of chicken, beef patties and bacon, taking up large amounts of land for farming purposes. Of all the available farmland in the United States, 56 percent is used for beef production, with 80 percent of locally grown corn and 95 percent of locally grown oats intended for feeding livestock. The high intake of meat in an American’s daily diet means that more land needs to be cleared for farming purposes. While people could have eaten the crops farmed, they opt for meat instead, resulting in more land taken up and more crops that would go to feeding livestock instead of another person.
Even in quantity, it would seem that Americans consume more food than they need to. In total, Americans eat 815 billion calories of food per day, 200 billion more than the necessary daily intake, and this excess could have been used to feed 80 million other people. Along with high levels of food consumption comes wastage when the food cannot be finished. Each day, 200,000 tons of edible food are thrown out. Fortunately, some of this food waste has been reused in recent years as compost or anaerobic digesters to produce natural gas and fertilizer.
While Americans make up just five percent of the world’s population, they consume 24 percent of the world’s energy. Americans are also generous with their water use, with each person consuming 159 gallons of fresh water per day on average – compared to the 25 gallons that more than half of the world’s population lives on. According to The Nature Conservancy, this amounts to an average of 32,911 glasses of water per day for each person and 751,777 gallons of water per year, far more than the recommended eight glasses of water a day each person should be drinking. Obviously, Americans are not consuming the bulk of their water use by drinking it, but rather using it through washing, bathing, toilet flushing and other means. Unfortunately, this becomes an issue when some people in the world do not have access to clean water. The number of people worldwide without a drinking water source is estimated to be 1 billion. Every year, 1.6 million people die from diarrheal diseases as a result of not having fresh water, with 90 percent of these fatalities being children under the age of five.
As established, the issue of overconsuming is heavily dependent on the definition of overconsumption. As people in developed countries, we should not view others’ lifestyles as an example of overconsumption, but rather look at how all of us can do our part to reduce consumption as a whole.
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