Circular File: Making Do With Less

The waste stream is shrinking. How will waste managers adjust?

We are now in the third year of less waste. This revolution in America's consumption habits began in 2007 when EPA's annual waste census showed a small decline in solid waste generation. At 40,000 tons, the decrease was statistically insignificant. But it was the first time that trash went down as the population and the economy were growing.

EPA attributed the decline to less paper being generated, especially newspaper, office paper and commercial printing. These changes reflect the continuing impact of online media, e-mail and computers in how we transmit knowledge. We may not have a paperless office, but the less-paper office is here to stay, as is the less-paper home.

I was reminded of this when my clock radio woke me up to an ad from Kaiser-Permanente, my health maintenance organization. They were promoting their use of computers to deliver patient information to doctors. This was old news to me. The bulky paper file that contained my patient history and that had to be manually retrieved from a file cabinet and physically brought to the examining room was replaced by computer files several years ago. Kaiser's ad touted the greater efficiency of the paperless system and boasted about saving trees. Its TV counterpart ends with a deer browsing in a forest growing in the middle of a city.

Kaiser is not the only company declaring war on waste, nor was this the first time I have seen an ad equating business efficiency with a greener, healthier America. In this case, as in many others, companies are using greenness to promote themselves as environmentally friendly and efficient, even though they adopted many of these changes for economic, not environmental, reasons. They now see bottom line value in being green.

These changes also impact how we manage our waste. Traditionally, waste generation has been a function of population and economic growth. After all, more people need more things, and a strong economy means more money to buy more things. As a result, ever since EPA began its trash census, the agency has usually announced higher numbers.

No longer. Waste volumes fell in 2008 and are falling in 2009 due to the recession. When the recession is over, I expect to see slower growth in waste generation, even as the population grows. While I am not convinced that the residential waste stream will continue to decline in overall size, future increases will be smaller.

I am convinced that the commercial and industrial waste stream will continue to decline. American businesses and manufacturers have discovered the value of producing less waste. They want to downsize the garbage container on the back dock. Many companies want to reach zero waste and will not be satisfied until the garbage container is gone. They now view what they once called “waste” as a material to be managed in the most productive way possible.

Yes, we will need disposal facilities for a long time to come. Revolutions don't occur in a day. Even as waste generation flattens and recycling continues to increase, we will still produce waste and we will still need to manage it.

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Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at