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Taking the Long View on the Latest EPA MSW Numbers

Because growth in garbage generation failed to keep up with growth in population, the amount of waste we individually generate is down by 6.4 percent since 2000.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week released its latest data on waste generation, recovery and disposal. Their 2014 numbers don’t show much change from the 2013 report. Essentially, we made a little more trash in 2014, we recycled a little more and we discarded a little less. 

Small changes from year to year are the norm. To gauge bigger changes, you need to compare 2014 data with that of 2000.

Those 14 years have seen sweeping changes in our industry’s raw materials. For a start, we continue to make less waste than we have in the past. Waste generation increased by a little more than 6 percent in those 14 years. Yet population growth was twice as much. Because growth in garbage generation failed to keep up with growth in population, the amount of waste we individually generate is down by 6.4 percent since 2000.

Perhaps the more important changes involve the raw materials we manage. No one who has been following the evolving ton will be surprised by these changes. We have less paper (down by 19 million tons) and more plastic (up by 7 million tons). Food waste is also up by the same amount as plastic. These three changes alone have had a fundamental impact on how we recycle and how we will need to spend more emphasis on organics recovery.

But not only have the materials we manage changed, so has their weight. Driven by a desire to lower costs, manufacturers, especially those who make packages, have been ruthless in their desire to make their products as lightweight as possible. While their primary goal is to ensure the package protects the product, they want to achieve that goal with as few raw materials as possible. Lightweighting examples abound. A PET water bottle, for instance, weighs 37 percent less now than it did a decade ago. 

So what do these changes, less paper and more, lighter individual units of packages, mean for recycling?

Essentially they have played havoc with our processing facilities. Even five years ago, up to 80 percent of a facility’s input was either paper or paperboard products. Now a materials recovery facility is happy to have paper as its majority input. Lightweighting is forcing changes in processing technology. Volumes are up, tonnage is down. Processors find themselves recycling less (by weight) and more (by volume). 

The impact of these changes on the recycling rate is simple. Because we measure recycling by weight, we only grew the rate by 0.3 percent in 2014. But wait a minute. Is the weight the only way to measure the impact of recycling? EPA’s report includes impressive data on the greenhouse impact of recycling and composting.

The agency estimated that recycling and composting reduced more than 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, the equivalent of the emissions from over 38 million passenger vehicles in one year. Maybe this is a better way to measure recycling.

Finally, because recycling was up a little, disposal went down. No surprise there. Our industry has known for the last two decades that disposal tonnages are flat and that the growth in tonnages has been for recycling and composting. 

Oddly, EPA decided to drop the terms “recovery” and “disposal” with the result that we apparently no longer discard anything. Recovery is now either “recycling” or “composting” and disposal is “combustion with energy recovery” or “landfilling and other disposal”. The theory, apparently, is that these are the terms used by the waste hierarchy so they should also be used in this report. That’s all nice and good, but combustion with energy recovery is just a disposal methodology. Along with landfills, waste-to-energy facilities manage discards, or those products that aren’t being recycled or composted. Waste-to-energy is a completely valid and legitimate disposal technology that works admirably throughout the country. Yes, those facilities produce energy. But so do landfills with methane gas recovery systems. 

EPA’s annual garbage census is not the only estimate of the size of America’s trash. At least two other estimates exist. Both have higher numbers for waste generation than EPA. All three have different methodologies and assumptions. Next month I’ll look at why they are different and which one (if any) I think is accurate.

Chaz Miller is the director of policy and advocacy at the National Waste & Recycling Association headquartered in Washington, D.C.

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