In last month’s column, “The Waste We Were,” I noted that EPA data shows we aren’t making trash like we used to. In 2009 we made 12 million tons less than two years before. In fact, we barely made as much trash as in 2000. Most importantly, individual waste generation declined by almost 8 percent during the decade.
The economic recession caused some of this waste reduction, but its impact was mostly on construction and demolition debris, not on municipal solid waste. Instead, we are witnessing the impact of changes in how we manage materials — changes that will stay with us when the economy starts picking up.
But what do these changes mean to recyclers and waste managers? How will we cope with this brave new world of less waste? Here are some trends I see:
• Paper is down; plastic is up. The amount of paper we use has decreased drastically, with the “knowledge grades” (e.g., newspaper, books, printing and writing paper) declining by 15 million tons since 2000. Computers and the Internet are replacing paper as a means to transmit knowledge. As a result, recycling facilities will process less paper and see less revenue. Nationally, recycling tonnage is down, largely as a result of the decline in paper generation.
At the same time, plastic use is up by more than 4 million tons since 2000. Packagers and manufacturers continue to use plastic to make lighter-weight products that produce less waste. For recycling facilities, better revenue streams from plastics are a must.
• Waste reduction is caused by business, not by government. The rise of plastic was caused by businesses looking to save money with a more efficient, less expensive material. Similarly, the decline of newspapers was caused by the rise of the Internet and on-line advertising sites such as Craigslist that took large chunks of advertising revenue away from print media. Ironically, we’d have even more plastic if plastics users weren’t constantly finding new ways to use less. For instance, Wal-Mart’s recent initiative to sell detergent as a concentrate resulted in smaller plastic bottles.
• Corporations love “zero waste.” Manufacturers and retailers have eagerly embraced the advantages of turning wastes into resources. They have learned the economic value of reducing or eliminating their garbage cans and increasing the size of their recycling bins. A financial debit is now an asset. By using fewer materials to make products and by converting their waste stream into a resource stream, they are being resourceful capitalists.
• Recycling is replacing disposal. The most daunting fact for solid waste managers is that recycling has skyrocketed in the last two decades while disposal has receded. Since 1990, recycling increased by 49 million tons, or 147 percent, while disposal decreased by 14 million tons, or 8 percent. Although the increase in recycling has slowed since 2000, most of the disposal decline occurred in this decade.
Waste generation will rebound slightly when we get out of the recession. Recycling tonnages will be the primary recipient, with food waste composting taking off in the next decade. Disposal tonnages will continue to decline.
Savvy solid waste managers and recyclers understand the need to be nimble in response to these changes. They will have to exploit these new realities. If they don’t, they will soon find themselves in the buggy whip business.