Slightly more garbage in 2012 and slightly less recycling—that pretty much sums up the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recently released report on municipal solid waste. The good news is that population growth outpaced garbage growth once again, and the amount of garbage produced by individuals continued to decline. But at the same time, the recycling/composting rate dropped by 0.2 percent or 260,000 tons. That marks one of the few declines in the recovery rate since EPA began tracking trash in 1970.
What does this year of flatness really mean? If you take a longer view of the data, starting with the explosion of recycling laws more than two decades ago, disposal has declined and recovery has increased. Even though our population grew by more than 60 million people since 1990, we sent less waste to landfills or waste-to-energy in 2012 than we did 22 years ago. And even as the waste stream grew by 42 million tons, disposal went down by 10 million tons. Equally clear is the dramatic increase in recycling and composting over the same period—from 33 million to 86 million tons.
Nonetheless, when you look at the data from a one-year perspective, recycling went down a bit, composting went up a bit less and total recovery declined slightly. So is recycling on the downswing or is this recent trend just a blip on the radar?
Recycling declined in part because we recycled less paper in 2012 than in the previous year. But we also used less paper. In fact, we used close to 18 million fewer tons of newspaper, office paper and other kinds of printed paper than we did a decade ago. We now use more bits and bytes than paper to transmit knowledge.
At the same time, the weight of those bits and bytes is going down. According to EPA, the amount of electronic products in the waste stream has flattened out. Personal computer sales have declined steadily over the last two years as smart phones and tablets have replaced cell phones, video and photo cameras, laptops and other electronic products. As a result, the waste stream is lighter.
Plastics, of course, are the better-known example of light weighting. Plastic use increased by more than 6 million tons since 2000. Yes, plastics pose some unique recycling challenges, but how heavy were the products they replaced?
I’m not saying we should be complacent about this slight dip in the recycling rate. I’m only saying that the sky is not falling. We need to give serious thought to how to increase recycling. Getting more recyclables out of apartment buildings, public spaces, and offices is far harder than getting them out of single-family housing.
Obviously, the interest shown in turning food waste into compost or energy will have the biggest impact in the next decade. Organics recovery is the next frontier. It won’t be easy. Expect siting battles, technology failures and other problems. But with patience, we will achieve the same results in the next two decades that we achieved with recycling in the last two decades.
One last thought: the EPA’s report included one new finding that most people seem to have overlooked. Since the mid-1990s we have spent increasing amounts of money on goods and services without similarly increasing amounts of garbage. The idea that trash generation and an expanding economy go hand-in-hand hasn’t been true for two decades. And that little nugget may be the most important fact in the report.
Chaz Miller is Director, Policy/Advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association, Washington, D.C.