A widely-requoted online "fact" suggests that the US spends more on garbage bags than 90 countries spend on everything. Is that a verifiable claim -- and what would it mean if it was?
Picture by Alex Chaffee
The factoid in question pops up all over the internet, but it originates in a 2003 article for Fast Company by Polly LaBarre. In it, she writes:
One of the more shocking measures of our "prosperity" is the fact that the United States spends more on trash bags than 90 other countries spend on everything. In other words, the receptacles of our waste cost more than all of the goods consumed by nearly half of the world's nations.
Many other people seem to have come by this assertion via Daniel Pink's book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, where he requotes LaBarre's words.
Unfortunately, LaBarre doesn't provide any sources for her statistics; there are no links and no footnotes in the Fast Company article. As such, it's close to impossible to determine if it was true based on what was actually written. Stated quantities without sources are tricky to trust.
But even as written, it's actually quite a hard claim to make sense of. In the first sentence, we're told that the total US expenditure on garbage bags tops what 90 countries spend on everything. In the next sentence, we're told the actual total covers "all the goods consumed" in those countries. These are not the same thing.
What 90 countries "spend on everything" would for starters include an awful lot of wages for politicians and civil servants and military forces, even in the least interventionist economy. And which 90 countries? The UN has 193 member countries, so "half the world's nations" is actually more than 90 of them.
It seems reasonable to assume that LaBarre actually meant spending on goods and the poorest countries she could find, but let's be clear: that's not what she wrote first, and some people won't even get around to noticing the second sentence. So we're already dealing with an assertion that's unclear, and a lack of clarity on this small point puts the larger point into question.
But it's not really the detail to focus on. Given that it's now nine years since she made the claim, a better question might be: is it true now? Again, the data is incomplete at best based on what I could find via a quick search.
One Nielsen study from 2006 suggests that US garbage bag sales were rising rapidly, which could have skewed the balance further in favour of a bag-hungry economy. But a more recent Wall Street Journal report notes that garbage bag sales have been flat in the US in recent years, but stops short of giving industry-wide numbers, instead quoting a handful of major manufacturers on sales trends. I can't help suspecting that if there was an American annual sales figure to be had, the WSJ would have uncovered it.
And -- again -- what about the 90 countries? Even if we skate over the surprisingly contentious issue of what a country is, what figure is being measured? The nearest statistically relevant measure is probably retail turnover (here are the US and Australian numbers), but in developing countries that figure is unlikely to be recorded with any accuracy.
I'm certainly not saying that this is an exhaustive plunge through the potential data. There might well be a definitive source of US garbage bag sales out there (quite likely, though companies probably have to pay to access it), and a clear indication of expenditure on retail expenditure patterns in every nation on earth (rather less likely). But one of the reasons I stopped searching was because of an even bigger issue: just what exactly does the original assertion prove anyway?
The notion that Americans (and by extension, any other Western economy, Australia included) have a lot of money to waste on relative trivialities -- you don't need a garbage bag to use a garbage bin, and the latter is still a luxury item in the big picture -- is hardly news. The expression "third world" doesn't exist in a vacuum. If someone has to be shocked into that realisation by thinking about garbage bags, they're coming from a position of shockingly gross global ignorance, quite frankly. The same applies if the "point" is to encourage recycling.
And even if it were true, how are we supposed to react? I can't imagine that if garbage bags were eliminated altogether -- unlikely in a domestic context, despite ongoing moves to reduce or ban their use in shops -- that would mean the money spent on them would flow into those less-wealthy third-world countries. This isn't general revenue to be reassigned to foreign aid; it's expenditure by individuals. Presumably, everyone in the first world would just spend the money on something else; air freshener, perhaps. And to the extent that those bags are manufactured cheaply in other nations, some of those 90 countries might be even worse off if we did so.
In the end, there's no obvious point in quoting that fact at all, especially given its lack of detail and clarity, and I've only written so much about it to discourage others from doing so. There are lots of facts out there. We should prefer those with sources.
Originally published on Lifehacker