Every Thursday, I put my garbage, yard waste and recyclables out for collection. On the first Thursday in March, I noticed something unusual. I had plenty of recyclables and yard waste, but I didn't have enough trash to fill a bag.
In fact, I had four barrels full of broken tree limbs and crushed shrubs, the victims of the two February blizzards that left more than three feet of snow on my lawn. The previous weekend was my first chance to start clearing debris. I had so much that my supply outran my barrel capacity. I would have to wait a week to set out the rest. My contribution was not unusual that week. The county's composting system was working overtime to stay ahead of the flood of wood debris.
For recycling we have a dual-stream system with a blue bin for containers and a wheeled cart for virtually all kinds of paper. I had both on the curb. But when I looked over what little garbage I had, it was mostly paper towels and tissues, plastic film and rigid plastic containers for fruit and deli products. These unrecyclable paper and plastic products are fuel for the county's waste-to-energy facility. That week, however, the plant would have to do without.
Granted, part of the reason that we had no trash was because my wife and I are now empty nesters. Our daughter is married. Our son is in grad school. If either were still living with us, we would have been able to fill at least one trash bag. After all, their garbage didn't disappear; it's just being produced somewhere else.
Nonetheless, my curbside offerings reflect the changes in America's waste stream over the last two decades. Yes, we continue to create more waste, but the increase in waste generation has slowed dramatically. Over the last two decades in particular, three trends have combined to change how much waste we produce and how we manage it.
Continued lightweighting of products and packaging is the first trend. As a nation, we generated 4.5 million tons more plastic in 2008 than we did in 1990. These lightweight materials displace heavier competitors such as glass, metals and paper. By doing so, they create less waste.
The rise of backyard composting and the use of mulching lawnmowers to leave grass clippings on the lawn have reduced yard waste generation by 6 percent since 1990. At the same time, we continue to increase the amount of yard waste we collect for composting at centralized facilities.
The third trend is the 10-million-ton decline in paper generation since 2000. We use more disposable paper products, such as towels and tissues, and slightly less paper packaging such as corrugated boxes. However, newspapers, office paper and commercial printing are down dramatically as we use bytes instead of paper to transmit knowledge.
These trends are having a dramatic impact on our recycling programs. Newspapers no longer provide a strong revenue and tonnage base. We need improved plastic markets to recycle the increasing variety and amount of plastics. And we need more cost-efficient ways to compost and market yard waste. Most importantly of all, we need to recognize that the waste stream is dynamic. Change happens, even in garbage.
Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at [email protected].