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Ecological footprint

As suburbs have grown, many of North America's compact central cities have been replaced by a mixture of widely dispersed shopping malls, housing developments and highways (Miller 1985). This pattern of urbanization is one of the principal forces driving the global increase in energy demand (UNDP, UNEP, World Bank and WRI 1996). North American cities consume large amounts of energy and raw materials, and produce large amounts of waste and pollution. And with only five per cent of the world's population, North America is a major consumer of the world's natural resources and a major producer of its wastes. As a result, its impact on the global environment is larger than that of any other region.

Solid waste disposal (million tonnes/year) in the United States

Total solid waste disposal in the United States is increasing less fast than before, landfill disposal is decreasing and recycling increasing

Source: Franklin Associates 1999

North America also produces more municipal solid waste than any other region. Municipal solid waste generated in the United States continues to increase but much more slowly than before 1970; at the same time, waste recovery is increasing and discards to land fills are decreasing (see figure). Lightweight but high-volume materials such as paper and plastic are replacing dense and heavy materials in the waste stream which increases waste volumes (PCSD 1996a). The continued use of older technologies, coupled with a consumer lifestyle based on the desire for mobility, convenience and product disposability, has limited the further advancement of resource efficiency and waste reduction (UN 2001).

Agenda 21 identified unsustainable consumption and production, especially by industrialized countries, as the major cause of global environmental deterioration (UN 2001). Since 1993, the issue of sustainable patterns of consumption and production has become a part of policy debate. Both federal governments promote eco-efficiency through a number of programmes. The US President's Council on Sustainable Development has recommended national goals for natural resources stewardship, population planning and sustainable consumption (PCSD 1996a, b). Industry is increasingly restructuring its processes and re-sourcing raw materials to reduce their environmental impact; there is also a perceptible rise in the number of 'green' or socially and environmentally conscious consumers (Co-op America 2000).

North America's urban industrial society is at the same time the provider of a quality of life envied by many of the world's developing countries and, given its large ecological footprint, a region with a disproportionate environmental impact on the planet. When cities are planned to be compact, they are more efficient and sustainable. North America's smart growth and sustainable city programmes could reduce the region's ecological footprint but they are still in their infancy and progress is slow.