Circular File

Throwaway Predictions

Recently I participated in a Resource Recycling Conference panel of industry veterans. We were there to opine on various industry trends. In response to a question about today’s big issues, I noted the impact of changes in the materials and products we use.

For far too long waste and recycling managers have believed the waste and recycling streams would grow at a steady pace without changes in their composition. Yet, if we should have learned anything over the past few decades, it is that our ability to predict changes in the size and composition of these streams is limited.

Electronics products provide a good example of growth. EPA did not start tracking electronics products in the waste stream until 1999. At that time, the agency estimated we generated 1.8 million tons of “selected consumer electronics” or 0.8 percent of the waste stream. In 2009, the agency estimated we generated 3.2 million tons of these products or 1.3 percent of the waste stream. Even though their generation increased by 78 percent, they remain a small percentage of our discards. Nonetheless, determining the best way to collect and recycle them is one of the hottest topics in recycling.

At the same time, the rise of electronic media has lead to the decline of print media. According to EPA, generation of the “knowledge grades” of paper, such as newspaper, books, and printing paper, has declined by 13 million tons since 1999. In the course of one decade, these grades shrank from one sixth to one tenth of the waste stream. Incidentally, this material also happens to be the most important revenue producer for material recovery facilities. The impact of its decline seems to be the best kept secret in recycling.

These changes are important because of our reliance on solid waste management plans. But I wonder: How many state and local plans adopted in the year 2000 anticipated the growth in electronics products or the decline in paper?

The growth in electronics products was predictable, although I suspect that in 1999 most of us didn’t realize the enormous impact these products would have on our lives over the next decade. Yes, Steve Jobs may have been thinking about the iPhone and the iPad, but Apple wasn’t making them.

The decline in paper was also predictable, although I don’t know anyone who predicted its extent. We know these grades will continue to decline, but by how much? RISI, a company that analyzes the forest products industry, recently issued a study on the impact of media tablets (e.g., iPads and Kindles) on paper markets. According to their press release, Amazon sells more ebooks in the United States than printed books and almost half of tablet owners plan to cancel their print newspaper subscription.

These trends are just two examples of the dynamism of how we use materials in our society and its impact on the waste and recycling streams. Nonetheless, how many of the solid waste plans released in the last two years have noted the relationship between these trends and their impact? As I noted at the conference, we need to be more flexible in our plans and more willing to concede that dynamic changes affect solid waste management in ways we cannot anticipate or control. Command and control strategies are doomed. Flexibility is our only option.

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