The Mystery of the Questionable Statistic

A few weeks ago I mentioned my doubts as to the veracity of a statistic posted on my son’s classroom door, namely “The US produces 50% of the world’s garbage.” But I was relying on my gut instinct; I figured with a little effort, I should be able to find out for sure whether it was true or not, and if it was true, the context of the statistic. I’m a big fan of Snopes.com, which specializes in debunking–and sometimes verifying, or clarifying–the various stranger-than-fiction stories that float around the web.

Unfortunately, “The US produces 50% of the world’s garbage,” wasn’t in Snopes. It was on various environmental teaching sites on the web, though sometimes it’s only 30% of the world’s garbage that the US is producing; other times it’s 80%. In most cases, the source for the statistic is not mentioned, though when it is, it traces back to a program created in 1991 by the Cornell Waste Management Institute (CWMI) to teach children environmental awareness. In turn, the CWMI site mentions two sources: a 1989 document from the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment but still available online; and a 1988 community action guide from a DC-based nonprofit organization, Concern, Inc. The Office of Technology Assessment’s document actually states that it’s not possible to compare trash generation rates between countries, so I had to locate and order the Concern, Inc. booklet. I received the book yesterday and quickly found out Concern, Inc. had also said no such thing.

I’ve gone back to the Cornell Waste Management Institute with the fact that their cited sources didn’t back up their statistic. The mystery is not yet over, but one of the researchers has promised me she’d look into the old files on Friday and let me know where it came from. She is, however, confident that it’s accurate.

While digging around (not just at Cornell) about this statistic, I found that when asked, institutions are falling into two seperate camps, and interestingly not on political lines. There are those who think the statistic absurd, because the neccessary background data is too inconsistent (the Office of Technology Assessment, the Worldwatch Institute) and those who can’t tell me where it came from, but are sure it’s not only accurate, but that the US actually produces a higher percentage of the world’s garbage (Concern, Inc via phone; the Cornell Waste Management Institute; and my son’s teacher.)

Personally, I’m worried about a statistic that’s so hard to track down. After all, if I want to question another statistic, such as “The US produced 248 million tons of garbage in 2005,” it immediately points to the EPA. And when I asked the EPA about it, they were thrilled to be asked, and pointed me to a web site with all the information I could possibly ever care to have about the US’ 2005 garbage production, complete with a press release about 2005 garbage. They didn’t have any opinion on the the US percentage of the world’s garbage, since, in their words, “EPA does not collect information about other countries’ garbage production.”

I hope to hear back from Cornell on Friday. Either the mystery will be solved, or it continues further down a rabbit hole. As interesting as it would be, I actually hope it’s not a case of True Believers foisting lies for a good cause onto innocent schoolchildren.

Update: The “fact” is false. Cornell was sent me to source after source, obviously expecting that I wouldn’t check, and each source either said nothing or contradicted the fact. However, the Cornell Waste Institute’s program is (even though published in 1991) is still being used by public school elementary school children, and is repeated, as if fact, on many web sites.

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