How Much Garbage?

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau counts Americans. Their numbers are not completely accurate because some people don't want to be counted, and others just can't be found. But we know that the decennial census provides a good estimate of our national population.

Garbage is harder to count than people. Garbage is produced every day, in varying amounts and composition. People are born once, die once and are easier to track. Yet, to “manage” garbage, we need to know how much exists, what's in it and where it goes.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its annual garbage census for 2000. We had slightly more garbage because we also had more people. However, the amount each of us produced declined. More tellingly, that amount only increased by one-tenth of a pound from a decade ago. While the EPA isn't claiming victory, this data implies that our history of unrelenting garbage increases is over.

Or is it? The federal government isn't the only group to count garbage. At least two publications contact state solid waste agencies for their garbage data. State data shows major increases in both total and per person generation. According to one magazine's state data survey, we generated 65 percent more garbage than the EPA reports. The state data also reveals a 26 percent increase in individual waste generation in the past decade. To add to the confusion, an Environmental Research and Education Foundation survey finds that we made 45 percent more garbage than states count.

So which database is right? They probably all are because they use different methodologies. The EPA counts garden-variety, run-of-the-mill trash, or as the EPA calls it, “municipal solid waste.” MSW generation is estimated by the “materials flow” methodology, which uses production data for the materials and products in the waste stream. Adjustments are made for exports, imports, product life span (computers last longer than paper towels), and with sampling data for yard and food waste.

States define MSW differently than the EPA and sometimes differently from year to year. Some states include construction and demolition waste, industrial waste, both or other materials, and some only count MSW. Instead of using the EPA's methodology, states usually use local government estimates, reports on recycling and composting, and data from disposal facilities.

Finally, the foundation defined trash as any nonhazardous solid waste sent offsite for final disposal, recycling or composting. This definition most accurately covers the whole solid waste industry. The data came from disposal facilities, recycling facilities, waste companies and was statistically extrapolated nationwide.

The EPA data has consistency because its methodology has been used for 30 years and provides a good base for tracking changes and trends. States offer invaluable insight into what each cares about and how much garbage they say exists, but is lacking consistency. The foundation provides the broadest, most definitive view of the solid waste industry's size, but it was a one-time census.

So, how much garbage do we Americans make? It all depends on how you count it.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.