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Which European Country is the Trashiest?

Something truly is rotten in the state of Denmark.

In a survey of the 2007 municipal solid waste numbers for the 27 members of the European Union, Danes generated the most trash per capita in 2007, with 801 kilograms per resident. Second place goes to Ireland, with 786 kg per person. On average, an E.U. resident tosses about 522 kilograms per person, and the least-wasteful (in a sense, more below) are Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The study by Eurostat, the E.U.'s statistics bureau, offers a host of interesting tidbits; while the ranking of countries on the list skews toward the richest countries rising to the top, there are notable exceptions: Denmark falls right around the half-way point with the 12th largest GDP in the E.U., and Ireland right behind at 13th. Meanwhile, the third most wasteful country is Cyprus, which has the second smallest GDP in the Union, and wealthy Belgium (7th largest GDP) finds itself way down the list of waste per capita, fifth from last with 492 kg per person.

How much garbage each E.U. sends to landfill, from the Eurostat report;
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Waste per EU country
The study also broke the numbers down by how the waste was disposed of, whether to landfills, incerators, recycling, or composting. On landfilling, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Malta and Poland all send 90+ percent to landfill, with Bulgaria sending 100 percent of waste to landfill and Romania sending 99 percent.

On the greener side of things, Germany sends the least amount of its waste to landfill and recycles the most: with just 1 percent destined for landfills and 46 percent recycled, Germany leads the pack, followed by Belgium and Sweden, each with 4 percent landfilling and 39 and 37 percent recycling, respectively.

There are caveats ad nauseam here: richer countries almost by definition buy and sell (and throw away) more stuff than poorer countries; richer countries also have more infrastructure for recycling, composting, etc.; the list isn't normalized by GDP; and on and on. So take this with as many grains of salt as you like, but it's also prima facie interesting.

The final ranking based on waste per capita;
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Waste per EU country
What's even more interesting, as we non-Europeans look smugly from the outside in, is to compare these numbers to what exists for the U.S. That, dear readers, is an eye-opening revelation.

First, in order to gather the data, I dug through some of the research we've done in years past for our State of Green Business Report. I came upon the incredibly useful 2006 State of Garbage Report (no relation) put out by BioCycle Magazine. Now in its 20th year, the State of Garbage report pulls together a vast amount of data about MSW streams for each state in the union and for the country as a whole. BioCycle was kind enough to send us a copy of their 2006 report, which includes a handy table estimating the per capita municipal solid waste for each state, and the United States as a whole.

To put it bluntly, after looking at these numbers, the U.S. has no reason for smugness. The only U.S. state that would not have immediately rocketed to the top of the E.U.'s ranking for waste per capita is ... South Dakota, with a mere 635 kg of garbage per capita. That would put the "Mount Rushmore State" in sixth place, between Malta (652 kg) and the Netherlands (630).

The U.S. national average of waste per capita, according to the State of Garbage report, is an astonishing 1,179 kg, or 1.3 tons, per person, per year. And that's just the average, factoring in lower-population and smaller-economy states like South Dakota. The most landfill-intensive U.S. states generate more than 200 percent the amount of garbage per capita as Denmark: Indiana sends 1,905 kg per Hoosier to the MSW stream, and Alaskans toss out 1,814 kg -- two tons! -- each.

Now that is a load of garbage.

Dumptruck photo CC-licensed by Flickr user Salim Virji.

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