Circular File: Slimming Down

The waste we chased is plainly being displaced.

EPA normally issues a press release at the drop of a dime, especially if the agency can celebrate environmental progress. Yet, in mid December, when the agency released its annual garbage census, no press release was forthcoming. For the second straight year, EPA data showed a decline in U.S. waste generation. And for the second straight year, the agency chose not to celebrate its successful waste reduction efforts.

The 2007 decline was particularly noteworthy. Though the size of the decrease was so small as to be statistically insignificant, 2007 marked the first time garbage generation went down while the economy was strong. The decline in 2008, however, was no surprise. That year saw the beginning of the “Great Recession.” Newspaper stories about the impact of less waste on local disposal and recycling programs were common in the first few months of 2009. As garbage generation continues to decline, those stories are still being written.

EPA is not the only source of garbage data. Many states release annual disposal tonnages along with estimates of recycling, composting and total waste generation. State data is confirming the decline. Michigan's report, released in mid-January, noted a 16.4 percent decline in disposal tonnage for FY 2009. Because a trash tax funds Michigan's solid waste programs, state officials opined that less waste has serious revenue implications. North Carolina's report also showed a sharp decline from the previous year and the lowest disposal rate in 13 years. Both states said that disposal tonnages were down because of increased recycling and the economic recession.

But are these the only reasons for the decline? Garbage generation is a function of two variables: population and the economy. More people means more garbage unless the economy is in decline. Yes, recycling and composting have had an impact on disposal, although the increase in both has slowed dramatically in this decade. The recession's impact on garbage generation has been undeniable.

However, it's too easy to blame the reality of less waste on the economy. We are witnessing fundamental changes in how we manage materials in our society. Paper generation is down by 12 percent in this decade. A small part of that is packaging grades. But the lion's share of the decline reflects how we transmit knowledge. We read fewer and smaller newspapers and magazines. We use less office paper and print fewer flyers (or commercial printing as EPA calls it). The generation of these grades of paper is down dramatically. We even sent fewer holiday cards this year! The Post Office estimated a 10 to 15 percent decline in those cards.

When the economy returns to health, will we see a return to robust waste generation? I don't think so. Too many businesses have discovered cost savings when they manage what they used to call “waste” as a resource. Companies such as Subaru, Nestlé and Caterpillar have changed their business practices. They want to minimize waste, reuse materials, and maximize recycling or composting. The waste stream generated by manufacturers will continue to decline as it is put to more productive uses. Large retailers, Wal-Mart being the most prominent example, have demonstrated that they too see bottom line benefits in producing less waste.

And that leaves us. You and I — American consumers. Will we change our habits? Tune in next month.

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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].