Losing Count

Can we track the true size of the U.S. waste stream?

We Americans love numbers. They give us the facts we need to solve problems and set rules. But can you make good public policy, or good business decisions, when the numbers themselves are flawed?

The Census Bureau's population data is a good example of a set of numbers we rely on. The Bureau has been counting Americans every decade for more than 200 years. Its population data is not 100 percent accurate because it can't find everyone. But it continues to refine its people-counting techniques. As a result, both the public and private sectors feel comfortable relying on census data for policy and business needs.

Garbage is harder to count than people. The Census Bureau doesn't even try to estimate the size of the waste universe. Yet, to “manage” garbage, we need to know how much exists, what's in it and where it goes.

Several trash databases exist. The best known is the Environmental Protection Agency's waste characterization study. That study said we made 246 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2005 and recycled 79 million tons of it. EPA's numbers are based on national production data for some products in the waste stream and estimates for others. The agency has used the same methodology for more than 30 years. While I respect EPA's work, everyone I know in the public and private sectors believes EPA consistently underestimates the size of the waste stream.

Another approach is to use solid waste data generated at the state level. The Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University used these numbers to determine that we produced 387 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2004 and recycled 110 million tons of it. That is probably a more realistic number than EPA's, but it too has flaws.

The problem with state data is that the 50 states define and count garbage differently. Although the study's authors attempted to clean up state data to guarantee that the states were comparing discarded apples to discarded apples, their study shows wide differences in the amount of trash produced by individual residents of different states.

For instance, according to their data, each resident of Indiana created 2.1 tons of trash in 2004, while each Ohioan only created 1.4 tons. Are Hoosiers the garbage kings of America? What could possibly be the difference in the products used and the trash produced by the residents of the two states? The most likely answer is that Indiana counts trash differently than Ohio.

At the same time, their data shows Floridians making more waste per person than Arizonans. That makes sense. Tropical climates produce more yard waste than desert climates. Indiana and Ohio, however, have similar climates and similar economies.

Even less accurate are city recycling rates. A city may get a good handle on its residential recycling rate by comparing the amount of single-family garbage it collects with the amount of recyclables it also collects. Yet, that same city rarely has the ability to get good data for multi-family or commercial waste generation or recycling.

In most cases, these differences don't matter. State and local governments seem to be happy with their databases. However, as the climate change debate heats up, recycling could be at a major disadvantage without defensible numbers. Given all the good recycling does, that would be a shame.

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.