Our industry is in the midst of unprecedented change. How much waste we make, what’s in it and how we manage it have evolved dramatically in the last two decades. For a starter, we are not making trash like we used to. In fact, had waste generation increased in the last two decades at the same rate as in each of the previous two decades, we would have had 77 million tons more in 2011 than we did.
In the past, waste generation has been a function of population growth, economic growth and the materials we use in our daily lives. More people guaranteed more garbage. A strong economy added to that increase. Yet for the last two decades, population growth has exceeded the growth in the waste stream.
Why are we no longer the Saudi Arabia of garbage? Some say it’s because of the recession. While that had an impact, the economy went sour at the end of this decade, well after other, stronger forces had kicked in. Others will argue the declining garbage trend stems from the rise in recycling and composting. Yet those are waste management, not waste reduction, techniques.
We are making less waste for three reasons: “the evolving ton,” source reduction and zero waste initiatives by manufacturers and retailers. “The evolving ton” is a phrase coined by Republic Services that refers to the changes in the contents of the waste stream. Less paper, more plastic and smaller electronic products are the hallmarks of this trend.
Paper generation is off by 17 million tons, or 20 percent, in the last 11 years. Virtually all of this decline came in printed grades such as newspaper and printing and writing paper. And it’s no surprise; how many of you are reading this column online?
While our use of plastic products has increased by 25 percent in the same period, they have replaced heavier products. As for electronic products, my smart phone combines the functions of a telephone, video camera, still camera, watch, music player and more. And I can put the phone in my pocket. Think of all the products that replaces, not only in our homes but in the waste stream.
Source reduction has also played a big role in the waste decline. I am referring primarily to waste reduction techniques such as grasscycling and backyard composting along with product lightweighting. Examples of the latter can be found for products made out of plastic, metals, paper and glass.
Zero waste initiatives by manufacturers and retailers have had both the biggest effect and the hardest to quantify impact. In the past, these businesses were content to pay to have their waste products hauled away. Now they are aggressively turning a cost center into a profit center. Examples of this include “zero waste to landfill” factories; grocers and food processors donating edible unsold food products to food banks; factories redesigning production procedures to eliminate defects; and breweries selling their spent grains for animal feed. Let’s face it: Zero waste is simply smart capitalism.
As to how we manage waste, we disposed of less of it in 2011 than we did in 1990. At the same time, recycling and composting doubled their share of the waste management market.
These changes in quantity and quality have not come without a price. MRFs are adjusting to the revenue impact of less paper and more plastic. Landfills, especially small local landfills, are struggling with less supply. Nonetheless, these changes are here to stay. We are not managing our father’s waste stream. We have no choice except to adapt.