U.S. Environmental Footprint Factsheet

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The U.S. population is expected to grow from 328 million in 2018 to 404 million by 2060.1,2 One way to quantify environmental impacts is by estimating how many Earths would be needed to sustain the global population if everyone lived a particular lifestyle. One study estimates it would take 5 Earths to support the current human population if everyone’s consumption patterns were similar to the average American.3 Pressure on the environment will increase unless consumption patterns are significantly adjusted to account for the finite natural resource base. Factsheets expanding on the topics below are available from the Center for Sustainable Systems.


  • The average American’s daily Calorie consumption increased from 2,024 in 1970 to 2,476 in 2010.4
  • In 2003, the average American consumed 46 gallons of soft drinks, a 330% increase since 1947. Between 1970 and 2014, per capita milk consumption decreased 41%, down to 18 gallons per year.5
  • The average American consumes about 22.5 teaspoons of added sugars and sweeteners per day; the American Heart Association recommends between 6 and 9 teaspoons daily for an average adult.4,6
  • U.S. per capita consumption of added fats increased by 66% from 1970 to 2010.4
  • More than 70% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese (body mass index of 25 or more), and approximately 17% of children age 2-19 are obese.7,8
  • An estimated 21% of available edible food is wasted by U.S. consumers, 50% more than in 1970.9,10 This food waste accounts for roughly 15% of the municipal solid waste stream and represents a loss of $450 per person each year.10,11

U.S. Daily Per Capita Caloric Intake by Food Type, 1970-20154

U.S. Daily Per Capita Caloric Intake by Food Type, 1970-2015 (Exclude Added fats and oils and dairy fats category)


  • In 2015, total water withdrawals in the U.S. for all uses were estimated to be 322 billion gallons per day, 9% less than in 2010. The biggest uses are thermoelectric power (41%), irrigation (37%), and public supply (12%).12
  • Water use per person was roughly 48% higher in western states than eastern states in 2015, mostly due to crop irrigation in the west.12 Over 50% of water withdrawals occurs in 12 states, 9% in California.12
  • The average North American household uses roughly 240 gallons of water per day for indoor and outdoor uses.13
  • Households with more efficient fixtures and no leaks can drop their water usage to 40 gallons per person per day.13

North American Household Water Use13

Gallons Per Household Per Day

North American Household Water Use

Material Use and Waste Management

  • In 2000, per capita consumption of all materials in the United States was 23.7 metric tons, 52% more than the European average.15
  • In 1900, raw material consumption (non-fossil fuel or food) was less than 2 metric tons per person. By 2014, it had grown to over 12 metric tons per person.16,17
  • In 2015, the average American generated 4.5 lbs of municipal solid waste (MSW) each day, with only 1.6 lbs recovered for recycling or composting.11 For comparison, MSW generation rates (lbs/person/day) were 2.20 in Sweden, 2.98 in the U.K., and 3.71 in Germany.18
  • In 2015, 35% of U.S. MSW was recovered for recycling or composting, diverting 91 million tons of material from landfills and incinerators—more than double the value from 1990.11
  • Automated curbside recycling currently serve only 53% of people in the U.S.; 82% of cities with curbside recycling collect material single-stream, meaning materials such as glass and paper are separated at the recycling plant.19

Average American Lifetime Material Consumption14

Average American Lifetime Material Consumption

Greenhouse Gases (GHG)

  • In 2016, U.S. GHG emissions were 20.15 metric tons CO2-equivalent per person.19,20
  • From 1990-2016, total annual U.S. GHG emissions increased by 2.4%. Emissions from electricity generation, one-third of the U.S. total, are allocated to sectors in the figure (at right) according to their electricity consumption.19
  • In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that “It is extremely likely (>95% certainty) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”21
  • By choosing energy efficient products to reduce electricity consumption and by making smart transportation choices, individuals can immediately reduce the greenhouse gas emissions they are responsible for.

U.S. GHG Emissions, 201619

Million metric tons co2-Equivalent

U.S. GHG Emissions, 2016

Residential and Commercial Buildings

  • Since 1950, average residential living trends in the U.S. have been towards bigger houses with fewer occupants:
    • Number of occupants per house decreased 25%.23,24
    • Single occupant houses increased from 9% to 28%.25,26
    • Living space per person increased 257%.23,27,28
    • House size increased 169%.27,28
  • Significant energy savings could be realized by better insulating residential buildings to reduce the space heating and cooling loads, using energy efficient appliances, and using more efficient lighting in commercial buildings.
  • Commercial building average site energy intensity per square foot decreased 14% from 115,000 Btu/ft2 in 1979 to 99,200 Btu/ft2 in 2016.22,29
  • The amount of developed U.S. land increased by 59% from 1982 to 2012, making up 6% of total U.S. surface area in 2012.30

Commerical and Residential Buildings Primary Energy Distribution, 201722

Commercial and Residential Buildings Primary Energy Distribution, 2017


  • In 2016, the U.S. had 268 million vehicles, 47.1 million more than licensed drivers.31
  • Drivers traveled over 3 trillion vehicle-miles in the U.S. in 2016, a 108% increase since 1980.31 This is equivalent to more than 6 million round-trips to the moon.34
  • Compared to 1988 models, the average 2017 vehicle’s weight increased by 17%, horsepower increased by 71%, and acceleration increased (i.e., 0-60 mph times dropped) by 38%.33,34
  • Fuel economy surpassed 1988 levels in 2009 after years of decline.33
  • The average vehicle occupancy for a passenger car is 1.6, compared to 26.1 for rail and 9.1 for a transit bus.35
  • Congestion is a worsening urban problem, causing an additional 6.9 billion hours of travel time, 3.1 billion gallons of fuel use, and 60.7 billion pounds of CO2 emissions by urban Americans in 2014.36

U.S. Modes of Transportation to Work in 201635

U.S. Modes of Transportation to Work in 2016


  • In 2016, the U.S. spent $1.0 trillion on energy, or 5.6% of GDP.39 When spread over the population, annual energy costs were $3,211 per person.38
  • More U.S. energy comes from petroleum than any other source, comprising over 36% of consumption.37
  • Each day, U.S. per capita energy consumption includes 2.5 gallons of oil, 12 pounds of coal, and 227 cubic feet of natural gas. Residential daily electricity consumption is 11.6 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per person.37,39
  • With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes 17% of the world’s energy and accounts for 15% of world GDP. In comparison, the European Union has 7% of the world’s population, uses 14% of the world’s energy, and accounts for 16% of world GDP; China has 19% of the world’s population, consumes 22% of the world’s energy, and accounts for 18% of its GDP.39,40

U.S. Energy Consumption Historic and Projected22,37

U.S. Energy Consumption: Historic and Projected

  1. U.S. Census Bureau (2018) “U.S. and World Population Clock.”
  2. U.S. Census Bureau (2018) “Projected Population Size and Births, Deaths, and Migration Main Projections Series for the United States, 2017-2060.”
  3. Global Footprint Network (2018) Public Data Package.
  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) (2017) Loss-Adjusted Food Availability.
  5. USDA ERS (2016) Beverages: Per capita availability. 
  6. American Heart Association (2014) “Sugar 101.”
  7. National Center for Health Statistics (2015) Health, United States, 2015.
  8. Ogden, C., et al. (2012) “Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among U.S. children and adolescents, 1999-2010.” Journal of the American Medical Association, 307(5): 483-490.
  9. Buzby, J., et al. (2014) The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States. EIB-121, USDA, Economic Research Service.
  10. Natural Resource Defense Council (2017) Wasted How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.
  11. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2018) Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015 Fact Sheet.
  12. Dieter, C., et al. (2018) “Estimated use of water in the United States in 2015.” U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1441.
  13. Water Research Foundation (2016) Residential End Uses of Water, Version 2 Executive Report.
  14. Mineral Education Coalition (2017) “Mineral Baby.”
  15. World Resources Institute (2008) Material Flows in the United States: A Physical Accounting of the U.S. Industrial Economy.
  16. U.S. Geological Survey (2017) Use of Raw Materials in the United States from 1900 Through 2014.
  17. U.S. Census Bureau (2000) Historical National Population Estimates: July 1,1900 to July 1, 1999.
  18. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2015) Factbook 2015: Municipal Waste.
  19. U.S. EPA (2017) The 2016 State of Curbside Report.
  20. U.S. EPA (2018) Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2016.
  21. U.S. Census Bureau (2017) Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States.
  22. IPCC (2013) Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. T.F. Stocker, et al. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp.
  23. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) (2018) Annual Energy Outlook 2018.
  24. U.S. Census Bureau (2017) “America’s Families and Living Arrangements.”
  25. U.S. Census Bureau (2004) “Average Population per Household and Family, 1940 to present.”
  26. U.S. Census Bureau (2004) “Historical Census of Housing Tables: Living Alone.”
  27. U.S. Census Bureau (2017) “Households by Type and Tenure of Householder for Selected Characteristics: 2017.”
  28. U.S. Census Bureau (2016) “Median and Average Square Feet of Floor Area in New Single-Family Houses Completed by Location.”
  29. Wilson, A. and J. Boehland (2005) “Small is beautiful, U.S. house size, resource use, and the environment.” Journal of Industrial Ecology, 9(1-2):277-287.
  30. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), EIA (2012) Annual Energy Review 2011.
  31. USDA National Resource Conservation Service (2015) Natural Resources Inventory 2012.
  32. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (2017) Highway Statistics 2016.
  33. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2013) “Earth’s Moon: Facts & Figures.”
  34. U.S. EPA (2018) Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2017.
  35. U.S. EPA (2016) Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2015.
  36. U.S. DOE, Oak Ridge National Lab (2018) Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 36.1.
  37. Texas A&M Transportation Institute (2015) 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard.
  38. EIA (2018) Monthly Energy Review April 2018.
  39. EIA, State Energy Data System (2018) State Energy Data 2016: Prices and Expenditures.
  40. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (2018) The World Factbook.
  41. U.S. EIA (2018) International Energy Statistics.
Cite as: 
Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2018. "U.S. Environmental Footprint Factsheet." Pub. No. CSS08-08.