AMERICANS HAVE BEEN gorging themselves for years, but it appears that like Subway's famous Jared Fogle, we may have finally decided to get rid of the fat. In its latest tally of the nation's total garbage production, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., reports that the United States generated approximately 229.2 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2001, a decrease of 2.8 million tons from the previous year.
Although the slim-down isn't quite as impressive as Jared's 55 percent weight reduction from 425 to 190 pounds, the latest EPA figures indicate we might finally be on the right track. Our per capita generation has decreased to 4.4 pounds per person per day, after continually increasing throughout the 1990s, according to the agency. And the amount of MSW recovered for recycling increased 0.2 million tons from 2000 to 51.4 million tons in 2001. Tons recovered for composting rose to 16.6 million in 2001, up from 16.5 million in 2000.
Of course, the economy and population size are said to have a strong effect on consumption and waste generation, so it's not entirely surprising that our waste line shrank. However, as last year's EPA report of year 2000 MSW generation figures indicated, when the sluggish economy also was weighing heavy on the U.S. population, consumer spending in nearly every category — food, housing, apparel, personal care products and services — went up. The EPA itself says generation decreased in both years, to a large extent, because of a decline in paper and paperboard production. Consequently, it's questionable whether Americans will continue to generate less waste in future years, or if we're simply starving for a better economy.
Perhaps the lesson for our nation, as all dieters already know, is that continually keeping the weight off will take hard work and dedication. Because what's troubling about the latest EPA figures is that the per capita recycling rate actually decreased.
In 2001, our recycling rate was reported at 1.3 pounds per person per day, and discards after recycling declined to 3.1 pounds per person per day. But in 2000, our recycling rate was 1.4 pounds per person per day. Overall however, the nation's total recovery rate, including composting, went up.
Regardless of whether our recovery rate continues to rise, as our economy grows and more products and materials are generated, the waste industry will need to rethink its management strategies. In many communities, waste services were cut when our economy went south. So we may need to reinvest in collection programs, education, recycling or source-reduction activities if we want to maintain our current figures.
Even Jared, four years after he ended his diet, has eased himself into eating other foods, according to the Subway Web site. Because in the end, you can't starve yourself forever — nor is there a quick fix to keep the waste off or out of our landfills.
The author is the editor of Waste Age