Circular File

The Waste We Were

America’s waste census for 2009 has finally been released. Once again, EPA’s data shows that we generated less waste than in the previous year. Not only that, we barely made more waste than in the year 2000. More importantly, per capita waste generation has declined by 8 percent since 2000 and by 5 percent since 1990. What we are witnessing is a revolution in materials management.

Yet, oddly, EPA doesn’t seem to know what to say about this. Usually the agency is quick to celebrate an environmental victory. Now that waste reduction is fundamentally changing the size and composition of the waste stream, the agency has gone silent on the significance of this change.

Waste reduction occurs, obviously, when we make less waste. Clearly the economic recession has had an impact. After all, when money is tight, people buy less. However, the recession’s biggest impact has been on construction and demolition (C&D) debris. Housing starts are down dramatically; so is demolition. We have less of the wood, concrete and other materials those activities generate. And, because they are C&D, they are not included in EPA’s waste census. Undoubtedly when the recession ends (I’m told that has already happened), we will see more C&D materials.

The trend that will keep on giving is a combination of changes in the materials we use and how we manage them when we don’t need them anymore. Let’s look first at materials use. According to EPA, paper consumption is down by 21 million tons from 2000 and glass is down by 1 million tons. Plastics are up by 4 million tons. The biggest decline in paper is in the products we use to transmit knowledge. The amount of “knowledge grades” such as newspapers, office paper, books and commercial printing has gone down by 15 million tons, or 38 percent. The paperless office may not yet exist, but we increasingly use bits and bytes, not paper, to transmit knowledge.

Interestingly, disposable paper products such as tissue paper, towels and paper plates have increased by 8 percent, while paper packaging has decreased by 12 percent. In the latter case, less paper packaging is caused primarily by the decline in manufacturing in this country. As our factories make fewer products, they need less corrugated boxes and other paper packaging.

The rise of plastic packaging has been phenomenal. Our use of these packages has only increased by 1.5 million tons since 2000. However, these lighter weight packages have allowed manufacturers to avoid the use of millions of tons of heavier metal cans and glass bottles.

Zero waste also has had a positive impact on the waste stream. Not a day goes by that I don’t read a press release or a news account of a company determined to lower its waste generation. Walmart, General Motors, Albertsons, the U.S. Postal Service – the list goes on and on of companies that are aiming to create as little waste as possible. Puma, for instance, announced it is replacing the traditional paper shoebox with a reusable shoe bag that reduces the use of paper by 65 percent.

Waste managers need to understand the long-term implication of these trends. The waste stream is shrinking. Its composition is changing. The facilities we needed yesterday may not be needed tomorrow. The times they are a changing.

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