Source reduction is the Rodney Dangerfield of waste management. Even though it is at the top of everyone’s waste management hierarchy, it gets no respect. Yet source reduction, which is also known as waste prevention, is easily the most effective way to sustainably manage materials. As the EPA notes, source reduction saves natural resources, conserves energy, reduces pollution, lowers toxicity and saves money. In addition, when product manufacturers and packagers find ways to use less materials, they are getting us closer to zero waste.
The EPA first noticed the impact of source reduction 15 years ago in its National Source Reduction Characterization Report. This publication, which may be the best unread document ever published by the EPA, examined why the waste stream in 1996 was 11 percent lower than it should have been. As the agency noted, had we generated waste in the first six years of the 1990s at the same rate as we had in the ’80s, we would have had an extra 23 million tons of trash to manage.
Two big factors stood out in the EPA’s analysis. The first is what I call “avoiding the curb.” This is the widespread adoption of backyard composting and “grasscycling” or the use of mulching lawnmowers. Local and state governments successfully promoted both in the early ’90s as a way to reduce the amount of yard waste they needed to collect for composting or disposal.
The second factor is lightweighting and material substitution. Lightweighting is simply decreasing the weight of a product or package. However, it most commonly means switching to a lighter-weight material. The EPA cited examples such as plastic bottles replacing glass and metal containers, and newspapers using a smaller, lighter-weight paper sheet. Even electronic products were getting smaller and lighter in the ’90s, although, alas, the agency didn’t predict the iPhone. While the EPA never used the term in its publication, it was calculating the ongoing impact of zero waste as companies looked to save money by using less raw materials when making their products.
These changes have continued unabated since the ’90s. By my calculation, we had 77 million fewer tons of waste to recycle, compost or dispose of in 2010 than if the waste generation trends in the previous two decades had continued. Waste prevention has been effective.
But in spite of these gains, source reduction is ignored. States set higher recycling goals and fail to give credit for waste reduction achievements. This is becoming a pressing problem for local governments and for industries that are told to recycle more but do not get any credit for the good work they have done in creating less waste. Recycling has replaced source reduction at the top of the hierarchy.
This tension between source reduction and recycling is only going to get worse. Flexible packaging is the fastest-growing package today. These non-rigid, often multi-material or multi-resin packages have a green energy footprint and offer material savings greater than that of the recyclable packages they displace. And yet their technological complexity makes many of them unrecyclable.
As states look to increase their recycling goals, they should consider another approach, one rooted in sustainable materials management. They should take a closer look at material use and disposal. After all, both the amount of waste we generate and the amount we send to disposal are in decline. Maybe tracking those on a per-person basis is the best metric. Most important of all, it’s time to respect making less waste.
Chaz Miller is director of policy/advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association in Washington, D.C.