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Archive for Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sign of the economy: Not as much garbage

March 15, 2009

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Facts about U.S. trash

  • From 1960 to 2007, the amount of stuff that Americans threw away nearly doubled, from 2.7 pounds a person daily to 4.6, according to the EPA.
  • In 2007, the EPA says, Americans produced 254.1 million tons of household trash. Of that, by weight:

• Paper and paperboard (packaging): 32.7 percent • Yard trimmings: 12.8 percent • Food scraps: 12.5 percent • Plastics: 12.1 percent • Metals: 8.2 percent • Rubber, leather and textiles: 7.6 percent • Wood: 5.6 percent • Glass: 5.3 percent • Other: 3.2 percent

  • 63.3 million tons of trash was recycled; 21.7 million tons composted; 31.9 million tons burned. The rest, 137.2 million tons, wound up in landfills.
  • There are 1,794 landfills in the United States, down from 20,000 in the early 1970s. The EPA estimates that they will be full in 20 years.
  • Between Thanksgiving and the new year, environmentalists say, Americans typically throw away up to 5 million extra tons of trash, thought to be mainly wrapping paper and shopping bags.

— Along with the stock market and the foreclosure rate, a less-heralded barometer has signaled the arrival of hard times: the landfill.

In an extravagantly wasteful society that typically puts 254 million tons of unwanted stuff at the curb to be thrown away each year, landfill managers say they knew something was amiss in the economy when they saw trash levels start steadily dropping last year. Now, some are reporting declines as sharp as 30 percent.

“The trash man is the first one to know about a recession because we see it first,” said Richard S. Weber, manager of the Loudoun County, Va., landfill. “Circuit City’s closing, so people aren’t going there and buying those big boxes of stuff and throwing away all that Styrofoam and shrink-wrap ... and whatever they were replacing.”

Trash volume has dropped so much, Weber said, that instead of running out of space in 2012, as had been projected, the Loudoun landfill will gain a year and a half or so of use. “That’s huge,” he said.

It’s all part of the cycle of stuff that people in the trash business say they’ve seen in every economic downturn since the end of World War II. People don’t buy stuff, so there’s less packaging — which typically makes up one-third of all landfill trash — to toss. With a drop in demand, manufacturers make less, creating less waste.

More vacant homes and fewer people in a community mean less trash. A stagnant housing market means less construction debris. On tight budgets, people eat out less, so restaurants order less, so there’s less to throw away. Landscapers are out of work, so there’s less yard debris.

Even in Virginia, which takes in more out-of-state garbage than any state save one, trash men began noticing declines in late 2007 of 10 percent to 20 percent. “And normally garbage is a pretty steady business because everybody wants to get rid of it,” said Richard Doucette, a waste program manager with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Now, he said, some landfills are laying off workers.

Finally, said Ben Boxer, spokesman for Fairfax County’s solid waste management program, the economy is forcing people to heed the environmentalists’ mantra: Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! Repair! “A lot of these things that people throw away do have a valuable second life,” he said, “especially for those who, now more than ever, are going to be facing difficult times.”

In better times, Boxer has seen perfectly usable sofas crammed into Dumpsters. But now, instead of ending up at the dump, stuff is being repaired and kept or traded on Web sites such as Freecycle.org, where as many as 70,000 people a week have been registering to swap stuff since the recession officially began in the fall.

Americans might not be saving string and rubber bands like their grandparents did during the Great Depression.

But as the recession drags on, they are clearly rethinking the way they use their plentiful stuff.

Auto repair. Appliance repair. Computer repair. Many such providers in the region are reporting steady, if not increasing, business. “Right now, I have broken machinery everywhere,” said Brian McElroy, a shop manager at Friendly Computers in Herndon, Va. “Some machines are on the verge of being boat anchors — they should throw them away instead of fix them.”

In better times, Americans do toss them. The Environmental Protection Agency says 2 million tons of tech trash winds up in landfills each year, as do 100 million cell phones. “There are laptops that I would personally shoot if I walked in here with one,” McElroy said. “But people are weighing replacing an operating system for $500 or buying new for $600 and opting to save the $100.”

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