Circular File: Webslinging

The Web has transformed many industries, including solid waste and recycling.

Scientific American recently announced that March 2009 marked the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web. At first, the thought stunned me. The Web is so ubiquitous today, I was sure it must be older. But the Web is younger than either of my children.

What I learned next was even more amazing: The 20th anniversary refers to the submission of a grant proposal by Tim Berners-Lee that led to the Web's creation. Berners-Lee wrote the software code that, as he describes it, married hypertext to the Internet. Yet it wasn't until the end of 1991 that a Web browser and server actually communicated using the Internet.

By 1995, browsers from Netscape and AOL were publicly available. Interest in this new medium was growing. In 1996, I jumped on the bandwagon with a Recycling Times column titled “Recycling the Net,” giving that paper's readers tips about recycling and solid waste-related Web sites. For once in my life, I was an early adopter.

The Web has become an enormous influence throughout the world, with impacts that its founders probably never dreamed about. No doubt they anticipated that more people would use personal computers to communicate and share knowledge. But I doubt that they gave any thought to the Web's impact on how we manage waste. Solid waste managers and recyclers didn't give it any thought either. In the early '90s, we were too busy dealing with the aftermath of the garbage barge to worry about tomorrow's waste stream.

The Web has had a particularly strong impact on the growth of electronic products and the decline of the paper industry. As the number of electronic products proliferated throughout the '90s, e-waste recycling got more and more attention. We've had missteps along the way, but we are slowly building a real electronics recycling infrastructure.

Paper use has been dramatically affected by the Web. Surely, the Web's creators knew it would change how we manage knowledge. They may have anticipated some of its impact on newspapers. That industry certainly didn't.

In the mid-'90s, newspapers were in their glory days, becoming more profitable even as Web usage increased. With the notable exception of the Wall Street Journal, most newspapers met the Web's challenge by giving their online product away for free. Soon, Craigslist and other online services started taking classified ad income away from newspapers, slowly eroding the industry's financial base. According to EPA data, newspaper generation declined by almost 4 million tons between 2000 and 2007. Newspapers are becoming a ghost of their former selves.

Encyclopedias provide another example of changing paper use. When I was a kid, my family had a 20- (or was it 24-?) volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Those books supplied authoritative and complete sources of information. In 1993, Microsoft launched Encarta, a digital encyclopedia. Eight years later, Wikipedia, a user edited on-line encyclopedia, was launched. Encarta was too inflexible to compete and is being discontinued. Britannica learned to use its subscription Web site, its reputation for accuracy and depth, and its own wiki process to stay alive.

Twenty years ago, the world began to change when Tim Berners-Lee submitted his grant proposal. Perhaps this last March someone else made what will be an equally groundbreaking proposal. Whatever it is, recyclers and waste managers will meet the challenge of change.

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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].

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