We all throw our trash away, but we often don’t think about the massive scale of all the trash we create. We create more garbage than we need to, partly because solid waste is often not priced like a utility, which would provide immediate incentives for people to throw away less and recycle more.

Valuable Materials in the Trash

As the U.S. EPA has reported, Americans throw away a stunning amount of recyclable materials each year. For example, in 2013–the most recent year for which there is data–we sent to landfills and incinerators 29.5 million tons of plastics, 25.2 million tons of paper and paperboard, 15.2 million tons of metal, and 8.4 million tons of glass. All of this material has significant value.

Wasted Money

The fact that so much of our trash is not actually trash means that we’re bearing costs that we don’t need to. Some recent research details the economic toll of all this waste. Each year, $200 billion is spent on solid waste management and unnecessary energy use due to trash. In addition, there is $184 billion in unrealized revenue each year from missed opportunities for increased manufacturing using recycled goods, the value of recyclable materials thrown in landfills and incinerators, and payroll from more recycling-related jobs. Altogether, those avoidable costs and unrealized revenue opportunities for local governments make trash a $384 billion problem in the U.S. economy every year–funds that could surely be spent on achieving other worthy goals.

Wasted Natural Resources

The environmental cost of all this waste is also stunning. According to the EPA’s Waste Reduction Model (WARM), all the recyclable or reusable materials that were thrown in trash cans in 2013 instead of being recycled or reused is equivalent to the annual emissions from 61.7 million passenger vehicles. Moreover, the energy that was wasted because so many new products had to be made from virgin materials instead of recycled materials is equivalent to the amount of energy needed to fully power 23.3 million houses for a year.

One Price for All the Trash We Can Throw Away

Why do we create all this waste? One of the biggest reasons is that the residential solid waste system, unlike every other utility we use, is generally paid for with flat fees and taxes. In this “all-you-can-eat” trash system, we throw away as much as we care to because there’s no additional cost to do so. Compare that to water, electricity, or gas: If we use more, we pay more. As a result, people are far more likely to conserve those resources than they are to limit the amount they throw away.

The Solution: Making Residents Partners

The bad news is that these unfortunate trends are likely to continue as long as our residential solid waste system keeps incentivizing waste. But there’s good news: When we price trash the same way we price every other utility, we unlock the power of waste reduction to save tremendous amounts of money and help make a more sustainable world.