Garbage In, Data Out

We Americans love numbers because they provide facts that give us answers. We believe that if we can quantify a problem, we can solve it. Of course, it helps if the numbers are accurate, but it's more important that they exist.

The EPA's most recent garbage census, “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States 1999 Facts and Figures,” gives us the latest snapshot of our waste-producing habits. And what a story it tells. Not only did we make more garbage as a nation than in 1998, but our individual trash generation went up.

In 1999, we had a strong economy and a growing population. The fact that we made more garbage shouldn't be a surprise. Garbage is just the effluence of our affluence.

Also, the contents of our waste stream shouldn't surprise anyone either. Paper products dominate trash because we are a paper culture. We used twice as much paper in 1999 as we did in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day. Since then, we have used more of almost everything, except for glass bottles.

Our daily personal waste generation inched up by one-tenth of a pound, despite source-reduction's prominence at the top of all official waste management hierarchies. Source-reduction advocates shouldn't despair, however. Yard waste generation continues to decline as more grass and leaves are diverted from waste management by grasscycling and backyard compost piles. And the tremendous rise in plastic products, which increased by more than 800 percent between 1970 and 1999, is a testament to industrial source-reduction. This is because many packagers and product manufacturers have switched from heavier materials to lighterweight plastics.

At the same time, the recycling rate has flattened. Our national recycling rate, which includes composting, has increased by slightly more than 2 million tons. But the additional tonnage only increased the recycling rate by two-tenths of a percent. In spite of the dramatic increase in the recycling rate between 1990 and 1995, we shouldn't be surprised that it's not growing as much.

Most American communities have curbside collection or drop-off programs. The only way to increase the recycling rate is to collect more mixed paper or to switch from grasscycling and backyard composting to centralized composting programs. Both options are expensive and plagued by limited markets.

Garbage data has its oddities. To most people's surprise, lead-acid batteries have the highest recycling rate. Why? Because we give up our dead car battery when we buy a new one. The old batteries, collected at virtually no price, are sold to processors for their plastic and lead components. Corrugated boxes continue to have the highest recycling tonnage and are also the third-biggest contributor to disposal facilities by weight, after food waste and yard trimmings.

Estimates of the solid waste stream based on state or facility data show considerably more garbage and roughly the same recycling rates as EPA's data. But just think, without these numbers, would we ever be able to know what to do with our trash?

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

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].