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Decreased municipal solid waste challenges the recycling industryClick to Enlarge

After nearly a half-century of strong and steady growth, the total volume of municipal solid waste (MSW) declined from 2005 to 2010 as per capita waste generation, which had been flat for nearly two decades, also turned downward, according to figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If it continues, the shift could mean big changes in store for recyclers.

Whether a blip or a sign of things to come, the swing is historic. The EPA shows a total of 88.1 million tons of MSW was generated in 1960, a rate of 2.68 lbs. per person per day. As the U.S. population swelled from 181 million in 1960 to 296 million in 2005, the total grew to 252.7 million tons of MSW annually, or 4.67 lbs. per person per day. Equally more significant is the leveling off of growth in the last decade. Waste generation grew by 34 million tons from 1990 to 2000 but only 7 million tons in the last decade.

Moreover, starting about 1990, the per capita figure leveled off. After increasing steadily to 4.57 lbs. per person per day – a 70 percent increase in 3 decades – per capita waste generation leveled off. It increased slightly during the 1990s, to 4.72 lbs. per person per day in 2000, before declining during the new millennium’s first decade to 4.43 lbs. per person per day in 2010.


Through most of the period during which per capita MSW generation stayed the same or fell, overall MSW generation continued to grow. But the 2005 figure of 252.7 million lbs. currently represents the all-time peak for MSW generation.

Recycling rates have changed even more dramatically during this time, going from 5.6 percent of MSW in 1960 to the current national average of 34.1 percent. That means there is still considerable room for increasing recycling without any increase in the volume of MSW. But the prospect of less municipal solid waste plus changes in the content of the MSW stream does raise questions for recyclers.

Trend or Blip?

Before addressing the possible effects of a long-term decline in MSW, the question has to be asked: Will this continue? Many people don’t think so. The 2005-2010 decline is due to the economic slowdown, according to Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City. “What that shows is a decrease in the amount of products purchased and consequently a decrease in the amount of packaging,” Hoover said. “We have a dip in the amount produced when the economy dips just because there’s less stuff in circulation.” Hoover anticipates a return to growing overall MSW generation as the economy improves.

However, some waste experts think there’s more to it. “There used to be a fairly tight correlation between the economy and generation of waste material,” said Chaz Miller, who as director of state programs oversees recycling for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association. “That correlation isn’t as tight as it used to be, except for construction and demolition debris, which is very closely connected to the economy.”

Miller points to EPA figures showing generation of durables, such as furniture and appliances, increased every year during the decade. “You’d think durables would be most affected by the economy because they tend to be bigger ticket items,” he said. “But apparently they haven’t been.”

One thing that’s happening, Miller said, is that people are using products that come in lighter packaging. Replacing paper, glass and metal packaging with plastic reduces the weight of packages, he noted. Another long-term trend is toward declining volumes of newsprint, magazine, writing papers and office paper. The contribution of these sorts of papers to MSW totals have declined by 15 million tons per year in the last 10 years, said Miller.

The overriding trend in recent years is simply less waste going to landfills, said Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research for the Solid Waste Association of North America in Silver Spring, Maryland. “That trend goes along with what we see and hear from our members,” O’Brien said. “Municipal waste tonnages we’re seeing at landfills certainly are not increasing. They’re declining.”

Lower tonnages being deposited into landfills has important financial implications for recycling operations, because these are typically supported by revenues from tipping fees. “Revenues are going down,” said O’Brien. “That means we have to make our recycling systems more efficient.” One way many recycling systems are doing this initially is by making curbside collection less frequent, going from weekly to every other week, he said.

Changing Composition

The shift toward more plastic packaging and less newsprint and office paper also has implications for recyclers. The lower bulk density of plastic-laden waste streams means changes in everything from recycling facility conveyor belts to balers. It also means more revenue challenges, because newsprint and office papers are the dominant economic contributors to many municipal recycling facilities. “Now you’re seeing a shift to mixed papers,” Miller said. “There’s less paper and less overall contribution to MRF revenues.”

The shift away from the types of paper that have traditionally supported recycling and toward mixed paper is not tied to fluctuations in the economy, Miller said. “We transmit knowledge more and more by bits and bytes than by paper,” he said. “And that material is not coming back. Those are irreversible societal changes.”

Recycling’s Challenges

One possible result of the changing composition and loss of tipping fees is that recycling programs will be more transparent about the cost of their efforts. They may have to find ways to convince taxpayers to financially support them.

Meanwhile, however, it’s still not certain that a rebounding economy won’t return waste generation to pre-2005 levels. The trend thus far is young, and it’s hard to separate out transitory economic effects from possibly longer-term shifts in the amount and type of what we dispose of. Hoover, for one, thinks the last recession is the best explanation. “When EPA releases total MSW generation data for 2011, I expect those numbers to be the same or slightly higher than in 2010,” she said. “But I expect to see recycling rates increasing also.”

But others see the signs of a more significant, probably permanent change that may require major changes in the way recyclers operate. That could be for the best, O’Brien said. “With every challenging time there are opportunities,” he said. “This is our opportunity to really document the true cost and true benefits of curbside recycling and other solid waste management options. Then let the public make good rational decisions on how we should be spending our money on these programs.”