Producing Less Waste is the solution of choice for solid waste hierarchy devotees. Source reduction, the technical term for simply making less waste, is the best choice because waste that is not made never needs to be managed.
We have been tremendously successful in shrinking the size of the waste stream. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's latest data, source reduction avoided the creation of 55 million tons of trash in 2000. Instead of making 293 million tons of trash that year, we only made 238 million tons. The waste stream was 19 percent smaller than it could have been! This is an amazing success story.
According to EPA, yard waste composting was responsible for almost half of our waste reduction. By 2000, mulching lawnmowers were commonplace. Many homeowners simply left their grass clippings on the lawn instead of bagging them for disposal or for composting in centralized compost piles. Some went a step further and created backyard compost piles for yard clippings and the types of food wastes that don't attract rats (I add banana and orange peels and coffee grinds to my pile and have never had a problem). More adventurous composters bought worm bins or used other methods to safely compost more types of food waste.
The next largest component of the waste reduction stemmed from changes to product packaging, which were responsible for a quarter of the drop. This was largely a result of switching to plastic from heavier materials such as glass, metals and paper. Here, source reduction becomes complicated. Let's face it: some people hate plastic. They don't want to admit that plastic packages — whether they are PET or HDPE containers or flexible plastics used for food products — have resulted in less trash. But they have. The reduction in the amount of our garbage since the early 1970's — when the use of plastic packaging first began to take off — has been enormous.
The use of plastic is only one example of manufacturers' ongoing pursuit of lightweight products. Aluminum has replaced steel in a number of applications because it is lighter. Newspaper and magazine publishers have found ways to use smaller and thinner sheets of paper while continuing to make a quality product.
Why has source reduction been so successful? Because using less stuff is simply capitalism at its best. Finding ways to make more things from less raw materials, and to be able to put more of those products into a truck and ship them to market at a lower unit cost, is just smart business. The ongoing efforts today by large retailers to “green” their companies by downsizing packages and selling concentrated laundry detergents and other products is getting more airplay than it used to, but it's just a new chapter in an old story.
Pay-as-you-throw programs, in which residents pay for trash collection based on the amount of garbage produced, also have had an impact. They have been particularly effective at encouraging less yard waste.
Finally, when EPA calculates the size of the 2008 waste stream, it will note that the recession contributed to the smaller waste stream. This should be obvious. When we have less money to spend, we buy fewer things. But only the most fervent zero waste advocate will think a recession is a good way to reduce waste.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected].
The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.