The Growing Burden of Waste and the Need to Rethink Infrastructure Informed by Science

John A. “Skip” Laitner, Economic and Human Dimensions Research Associates

Since 1950 the U.S. population has more than doubled. It has grown from an estimated 152 million people to perhaps as many as 329 million inhabitants today. Real per capita income increased four-fold in that same period, growing from about $10,600 per person in 1950 to nearly $44,000 today (measured in real 2012 dollars).

For understandable reasons we might imagine a largely upbeat economic story that follows from a population growth that also experiences a significant increase in per capita income. Yet, there is a further narrative that should also be conveyed. To support all of that snowballing growth over the past 68 years, the U.S. has consumed an aggregate mountain of matter—whether materials, soil, water or energy—that is 266 times the volume of the resources that were necessary to maintain the economy in 1950 [1].

While, yes, we can report clearly positive economic returns from all of that consumption over the past seven decades, there have also been huge social, economic, and environmental costs driven by the generation and dumping of wasted resources. For example, building on the work of Laitner (2015), and Ayres and Warr (2009), it appears that perhaps 88 percent of the energy consumed in the years 1950-2018 has been dumped in the form of heat, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and particulate matter [2]. All of that waste has contributed to an array of climate and health effects over time, with lingering effects into the future [3]. A detailed review might find a similar magnitude of other large-scale wastes generated in the use of materials, water, and soil – with concomitant impacts on health and environmental quality.

Laitner and Weiland (2018), for example, found that adding up the municipal solid wastes generated every day, and then accounting for soil erosion, greenhouse gases, other air pollution, and fecal matter (from both human and agricultural production), the average American may generate as much 280 pounds of waste in its various forms each and every day. If not more. That means for every dollar of personal income earned in the United States, we also produce more than two pounds of wasted matter. Hence, they ask the question, “Are we living more by waste than ingenuity?” [4]

But let’s step back a moment and think not only about the implications of this scale of waste, but also how better information and new critical insights might drive a more positive outcome. In effect, we might first explore the economic well-being that might be supported by greater energy and resource productivity. Then we might envision how insights from the world of science might advance a more beneficial and sustainable outcome.

With respect to economic well-being? First, there is the lost social and economic opportunity—for example, weaker levels of household incomes—driven by a very large scale of wastefulness over time. In effect, more resources are being turned into waste than generating positive economic opportunity. Figure 1 below provides a link between the more productive use of resources as it both drives and enables greater per capita incomes within the United States. With data available from both the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, we use an X-Y graph to highlight the connection between energy productivity and income. Energy productivity is defined as the magnitude of real dollars of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) supported by the use of one million Btus of primary energy over the years 1950 to 2018. (For reference, one million Btus of energy is roughly equal to 293 kilowatt-hours of electricity or 8 gallons of gasoline.) We can then compare it with real per capita incomes for the same set of years.

There is a positive correlation between US energy productivity and per capital income between 1950 and 2018
Source: Laitner 2018 [5]

Beginning in 1950 we note a relatively low level of energy productivity. The data show that we generated about $66 dollars of GDP per million Btus of primary energy consumed, which in turn, supported about $10,000 of per capita income. While there is some post-World War II turbulence in that timeline, as well as uncertainty following the 1973-1974 oil embargo, we see generally that as energy productivity increases so does per capita income.

By the 1980s we observe a very tight fit through present day. Hence, the more productive use of primary energy in homes, schools, businesses, and government operations can enhance our collective social and economic well-being. Here, the more productive uses of energy include more beneficial use of water, materials, and other resources which lowers primary energy demands. It also includes greater end-use energy efficiency (i.e., greater fuel economy and the more efficient use of lighting or heating and air-conditioning), and the more economical production of that energy—for example, the generation of electricity from one unit equivalent of wind or sunshine to produce a comparable unit or single kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity, instead of using the more-typical three units of conventional fossil fuels to produce that same kWh.

While a tight fit, also note the diminishing returns. In other words, the rate of improvement is slowing as well as the scale of ‘the income response’ as it might be affected by ‘the productivity stimulus.’ We can also see the eroding pace of per capita income growth in the major economic forecasts. For example, while the rate of improvement in personal income averaged about 1.9 percent over the years 1970 to 2017, the econometric firm Woods & Poole suggests this will likely slow to just 0.9 percent over the next three decades or so. That will mean an economy that, by 2050, may be 30 percent smaller compared to historic growth rates [6]. This means, in turn, fewer revenues available for healthcare, education, research, and development as well less funding for solutions to climate change and other social and environmental matters.

In addition to a less robust economy, we might think about the financial assets that may have to be diverted from more socially beneficial uses—as education and the development of cutting-edge technologies—to payments for offset acute health effects and disasters. Moreover, the scale of consumption for depleted rather than renewable resources will make it harder and harder to cost-effectively produce our food, clothing, shelter, and community services in a sustainable fashion.

So, the question becomes how might we avoid finger pointing and blame for the very-likely emerging problems? In a similar way as in the aftermath of California's deadly wildfires impacted by climate change, we clearly need to 'rethink the past.' One critical insight? Finger-pointing and blaming isn't at all constructive. Science-based and engineering dialogue and collaboration can be much more constructive in development and maintaining a more robust and sustainable economy [7]. This is true whether we are talking climate change and wildfires, or a slowly eroding economy.

Sustainable human well being is a product of built, human, and social capital, as well as natural capital.
Source: Costanza et al. 2017 [8]

In this short essay we cannot dive all that deeply into the topic, but we can explore the different and complementary infrastructures of the built environment compared to the value of nature’s services. In this way we also can develop better insights into how science and evidenced-base dialogue can help provide both immediate and long-term solutions to the growing economic and environmental problems.

On the one hand, the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) notes that U.S. infrastructure (or Built and Human Capital as shown in the figure above) now performs at a “Grade D” level of economic performance. According to ASCE, that will likely cost the American economy $7 trillion in lost business sales and perhaps 2.5 million jobs by 2025. To bring up that grade to an adequate level of performance will require a $5 trillion investment in upgrades (with economic values in 2015 dollars) between now and the year 2040 [9].

On the other hand, Kubiszewski and Costanza et al. (2017) highlight the critical role of natural capital in also maintaining our social and economic well-being. In 2011, for example, the variety of nature’s services generated a value of more than $120 trillion of economic benefits globally. Depending on how we ignore and degrade the global ecosystems, or how we build up a more healthy and resilient environmental capacity, “the global value of ecosystem services can decline by $51 trillion/yr or increase by $30 trillion/yr” by the year 2040 (with values here in 2007 dollars) [10].

The scale of the emerging social-economic problems, together with a declining quality and return of natural capital, requires an immediate and highly proactive policy and program support, especially in ways that encourage meaningful dialogue that is informed broadly by interdisciplinary science and agreed-upon metrics and data [11]. With the combination of proactive, science-based dialogue and ‘rethinking the past,’ we break out of the current logjam and build a healthier social, economic, and environmental well-being. If we choose not to do so, the failure to act will clearly erode the nation’s long-term social and economic prosperity.


[1] The metrics reported here are calculated from a variety of data reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis, MO.

[2] The working estimate of average energy efficiency is drawn from work by John A. “Skip” Laitner. 2015. “Linking energy efficiency to economic productivity: recommendations for improving the robustness of the U.S. economy.” WIREs Energy Environ, 4:235–252;; and also Ayres, Robert U. and Benjamin Warr. 2009. The Economic Growth Engine: How Energy and Work Drive Material Prosperity. Northampton, MA, Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.

[3] Campbell, Nancy and Lisa Ryan, et al. (2014). Capturing the Multiple Benefits of Energy Efficiency. Paris, France, International Energy Agency.

[4] John A. “Skip” Laitner and Meagan Weiland. 2018. “Let’s Talk Trash: Do we live more by waste than ingenuity?” The Environmental Forum, September-October Issue published by the Environmental Law Institute.

[5] The trendline shown in the graph are based on calculations by John A. “Skip” Laitner using data for the United States published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, May 2018.

[6] Woods & Poole Economics, Inc. 2018. U.S. Economic Data and Projections. Washington, DC.

[7] Kirk Sigler. 2018. “'Rethinking The Past' In The Aftermath Of California's Deadly Wildfires.” All Things Considered. Washington, DC: National Public Radio. December 12.

[8] Robert Costanza, Rudolf de Groot, Leon Braat, Ida Kubiszewski, Lorenzo Fioramonti, Paul Sutton, Steve Farber, Monica Grasso. 2017. Twenty years of ecosystem services: How far have we come and how far do we still need to go? Ecosystem Services 28 (2017) 1–16.

[9] Economic Development Research Group, Inc. 2016. Failure to Act: Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future. Washington, DC: American Society of Civil Engineers.

[10] Ida Kubiszewski, Robert Costanza, Sharolyn Anderson, Paul Sutton. 2017. The future value of ecosystem services: Global scenarios and national implications. Ecosystem Services 26 (2017) 289–301.

[11] As one example of an assessment that explores the need for full funding of policies and programs, see John A. “Skip” Laitner, Benoît Lebot, Matthew McDonnell, and Meagan Weiland. 2018. Smart Policies and Programs as Critical Drivers for Greater Energy Efficiency Investments. Paris, France: International Partnership for an Energy-Efficient Economy (IPEEC).