More is Less

Some of you may be surprised to learn about the impact of waste reduction during the last century. After all, the popular belief is that we excel at making increasingly large piles of trash. And that is true, to the extent that our ability to make more babies means we will have more people to generate more garbage.

But it is not true that the amount of trash each of us makes always is increasing. In fact, the normal economic pressures in a free market system guarantee that manufacturers are constantly figuring out how to use fewer raw materials when making products or packages. They create less trash for us in the process. Smaller, lighterweight contenders almost always are going to win the race to the consumer's pocketbook.

The most recent proof of this comes from New York City. Dan Walsh, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Earth Island Institute, recently published, in Environmental Science and Technology magazine, a detailed analysis of Big Apple waste generation throughout the 20th century. Among his conclusions, the average New Yorker made more garbage at the beginning of the 20th century than at its end. Per capita generation peaked in 1940, when the average New Yorker made twice as much garbage in 1940 as in 1999.

Why less trash? Because how we live and the materials we use in our daily lives have changed dramatically. In 1900, ash from burning wood or coal for heat and energy provided 80 percent of the waste stream. Today, very little ash is in garbage because we get our heat and energy from other sources.

Other materials, most notably paper, increased in use. In 1900, paper was 5 percent of New York City's trash. A century later, paper products of all kinds — from newspapers, corrugated boxes, writing papers, milk cartons and shoeboxes — gave the Big Apple more than one-third of its trash. Plastic also has greatly increased its solid waste market share. In 1900, plastic was a newly discovered, little-used material. Today, it provides more than 10 percent of Gotham's garbage. While the use of lightweight plastic and aluminum increased, glass and steal are used less.

Trash will continue to evolve. I don't know what our garbage will look like in 100 years, but I know it will be different, perhaps unrecognizable. The easy guess is that we will use less paper. Even plastic is likely to change in use and composition. But I have no idea what new materials are waiting to be invented to replace the products and packages we take for granted today.

Until the '70s, per capita waste generation increased during boom years and decreased during recessions. During the '70s, however, material lightweighting took off as manufacturers intensified their efforts to make more from less.

Trash evolves along with technology. Lighterweight products are easier to use, less expensive to transport and more convenient for consumers. Transportation costs are particularly important. A truck can carry more of a product packaged in plastic than it can carry of the same product packaged in glass or steel. Some people might not want to hear this, but markets, not government mandates, have given us less waste and a more efficient economy.

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.