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Sustainability 101: How Does the U.S. Compare?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at C Mich chapter.


If you’ve ever been to Europe, you probably noticed the differences in public transportation. Well, you probably noticed a lot of differences, in general. But, when I studied abroad in London last spring, I was really surprised at how readily available and accessible public transportation is all around Europe.

For a lot of Europeans, cars take second place next to buses and trains. Buses and trains are much less expensive and far more sustainable. This initiative is part of a much larger way of thinking in Europe. Why keep up with your own vehicle when you could take the cheaper, more sustainable bus or train?

In 2017, the United States emitted 16.24 tons of CO2 per capita, coming in third place as the highest CO2 producers in the world, after Saudia Arabia (19.28 tons per capita) and Australia (16.9 tons per capita). Of course, America’s people are spread out on more land, but these numbers put the reality of America’s CO2 output in perspective.

To put this idea in other terms, China produces 27% of global CO2 emissions, and America produces 15% of global CO2 emissions. Europe and Russia emit 17% of global CO2 emissions. Further, Europe has a population of 741.4 million people, the USA has a population of 327.2 million people. That means that Europe has over double the population of America, and is still only producing a tad more CO2 emissions than we are. Embarrassing.

As far as CO2 emissions go, Europe has America beat. By a lot. What about other aspects of sustainability?

I’ve already discussed public transportation. People are also much more likely to bike or walk in Europe than in America, where we live in a culture focused solely on convenience. Yikes.

Europeans also use far less disposable plastic products. The European Union voted to ban plastic bags, straws, cutlery, and other single-use plastics permanently by 2021 (items responsible for the 80 million tons of plastic dumped in the ocean every year), so these items have begun to phase out. Even before this vote though, Europe has been more conscious about plastic.

When I studied in London, plastic bags at grocery stores cost an extra five pence, a small price that encouraged consumers to bring their own bags. This small price has led to plastic bag sales dropping by 90% at England’s largest retailers! The plastic bags they did sell were larger, and there was also an option to buy a reusable bag, right in the store as you checked out!

By the time I was leaving, Starbucks had completely stopped using plastic straws, opting for paper ones instead.

You might be wondering, is it possible for America to be as sustainable as Europe? Only people with education on environmental policy would be able to tell you the specifics, but as a normal person with great observational skills, I can confidently say that there is no reason we can’t be close to their level of sustainability.

As a country, we need a shift in thinking (and a change in leadership) to get us set on the right track. America has been a leader in so many other initiatives throughout history, why not hop on the sustainability bandwagon, too? Better late than never!

Student Environmental Alliance is an environmental advocacy group at Central Michigan University.