Trash for Dummies

Deciphering facts and figures about the waste industry can sometimes feel like going on a first date. After deciding to meet for dinner, you suggest a neighborhood Mexican joint. Your date says "fine," but is he really keen on chips and salsa or just trying to be agreeable? Despite not knowing what your partner's truly thinking, you plow ahead and hope to learn enough by the end of the evening to draw some conclusions about his personality.

Boiling down data to determine the real message is what we who report on the garbage business do, too. The EPA and two magazines have tallied the nation's total garbage production — but with different results. All three "guides to the industry" agree that the total amount of garbage has increased. However, the newest EPA report says per capita production declined by 0.13 pounds from 1999 to 2000, while the publications say per person generation has gone up. Despite this “Mars and Venus in the Workplace,” the statistics are notable.

According to the EPA report, Americans generated 231.9 million tons in 2000, up 0.9 million tons from 1999. But because the population increased, per capita generation went down. The EPA attributes this decrease largely to the sluggish economy. However, consumer spending in nearly every category — food, housing, apparel, personal care products and services — climbed during this period.

The nation's recovery rate, which rose 2 percent, gives environmentalists something to celebrate. Tons recovered for recycling, including composting, rose to 69.9 million from 64.8 million. This jibes with figures that note the percentage of waste disposed of decreased by nearly the same amount. Waste combusted decreased from 14.7 percent in 1999 to 14.5 percent in 2000, and the percentage landfilled declined from 57.2 to 55.3.

Upon further examination, however, people may not be as waste-conscious as we think. Particularly, paper and paperboard recovery contributed to the nation's 30.1 percent recycling rate in 2000. But the majority of this recovery increase came from more exports, while materials such as clothing, footwear and plastic containers recorded "significant increased" disposal rates.

As with all industries, recycling markets fluctuate based on demand, so next year, paper exports could turn south. Correspondingly, as the economy improves, per capita waste generation also could rise.

Are people becoming more earth-friendly, or is per capita garbage generation married to the economy?

Time will tell, as you say to yourself while sitting in the Mexican restaurant wondering, "Where is this all going?" Don't shelve those "Trash for Dummies" guides yet — although you shouldn't take their findings as completely accurate indicators of what's to come either.

The author is the managing editor of Waste Age