Lighten Up Minnesota

What's with Minnesota? While most of us have learned how to make less garbage, North Star state residents are creating trash at a rate that would tire Paul Bunyan. Or at least that's what state regulators claim.

According to a Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance (MOEA) report, "Waste Management in the 21st Century," garbage generation increased 6 percent in 1998 and 30 percent since 1992. If the trend continues unabated, state officials fear that waste generation will increase as much as threefold by 2020. Worse yet, Minnesota landfill capacity will be exhausted by 2010. The garbage crisis is back!

At first, the MOEA proposed to save landfill capacity by outlawing landfills. But that idea was replaced with a proposal to eliminate the landfilling of all unprocessed garbage by 2008. Before we start recycling, composting or burning Minnesota's trash in waste-to-energy incinerators, let's look closer at the idea of Minnesotans being gung-ho trash creators.

Minnesota's waste generation estimates are based on garbage generation rates in 1992 through 1998, a period of intense economic growth throughout America. Apparently, the people who developed these estimates assumed the economic good times would continue for the next two decades. While I hope they are right, an economic recession, or at least a slow down, is inevitable.

In fact, while Minnesota predicts that garbage will increase by at least 2.5 percent per year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C. predicts a lower yearly growth rate of 1.5 percent until 2005. EPA's longer historical perspective and greater appreciation of source reduction's power lead to a lower estimate of the future amount of garbage.

Moreover, Minnesota's per person garbage generation rate is strikingly higher than national rates and those of neighboring states. The only rational reason for such a difference is that Minnesota includes more items in its definition of municipal solid waste (MSW) than the EPA or Minnesota's neighbors. After all, the only other explanation is that Minnesotans pass their long, cold winter days by sitting around the house making trash.

So what does Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan say about all this? According to the Wall Street Journal, Greenspan believes the U.S. economy is getting lighter. He has calculated that a dollar's worth of today's imports and exports weighs approximately 30 percent less than a dollar's worth in 1969.

Why? For one thing, we are becoming more of a service economy. More importantly, we continue to find ways to make more products with less raw materials. Lighterweight products are replacing heavier products every day. Source reduction continues its triumphal march.

As Greenspan's, as well as this author's, First Law of Garbage shows, lighterweight products drive out heavier products. Garbage has been getting lighter for the past two decades. Rest easy Minnesota, as long as the lightening of the economy continues, the need for more landfills will take care of itself.

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