Monday, May 21, 2007

Waste and Want

Author: Susan Strasser
Published: 1999

Long Winded Post. Hang on! :-)

The subtitle of the book is 'A Social History of Trash'. It is very well researched (hundreds of footnotes) and very academic. I can't take issue with most of the facts presented (well, maybe just one). The conclusions may be argued with.

The book covers several centuries of U.S. history with a focus on the late 19th, a time of post-industrial innovation and booming population. An age of innovation and cultural change that has only sped up over the past century. The theme is that our so called throw-away culture and our wants and desires are created and manipulated by corporate advertising (I'm simplifying here but bear with me). Our mounting garbage piles are due to these influences and our current wasteful culture.

I would counter there is evidence that our growing volume of garbage is due almost entirely to our growing population (and computer printers; paper makes up over 40 percent of what is in landfills). More people, more garbage. The problem is not that we make more of it per person than our recent forebears (human beings have always made more garbage than they could recycle and reuse), but that we've done such a poor job of managing it lately. Fortunately, that trend seems to be reversing thanks in part (irony here) to corporate waste management monopolies.

One data point that Strasser highlights at the end of the book is from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This states that the amount of garbage that Americans produce has increased steadily over the past forty years or so to a current level of 4.5 pounds per person per day. What the EPA uses to determine this data is called 'materials flow methodology' and can be found described in an EPA publication which is updated every two years or so.

The problem, I am convinced, is that this methodology is flawed. This was pointed out in the book Rubbish!. The problem is the EPA is estimating what is thrown away based on "... the average lifespan of different products." (pp.17-18 of '2005 Facts and Figures' PDF document). What the Garbage Project found, based on hundreds of samples excavated from landfills in different parts of the U.S., was that products are reused (e.g. garage sales, used goods stores, charity donations, hand-me-downs, refurbished and re-sold) or salvaged (primarily scrap metal) at a far higher rate than the EPA assumes. The Garbage Project had limited but convincing data that the amount of garbage finding its way to landfills in terms of pounds per person per day has been pretty steady and maybe even declined slightly over the past 50 years. The book doesn't state a number as a fact (they're scientists, they say the 'data suggests') but reading between the lines, I come away from 'Rubbish!' with a figure of about 2 pounds per person per day.

In short, I trust the scientists with their grubby hands in the actual garbage flow rather than the bureaucrats with their fancy calculations.


Todd Wheeler said...

I got all fired up on this topic and since today is trash day I decided to put my garbage on the scale.

Going by the EPA figures my household of 3 should average 95 pounds of garbage a week. The Garbage Project data suggests a figure closer to 42 pounds a week.

Our total today: 18 pounds (and 13 of that was cat litter: bad kitty! Bad!)

Now, we recycle everything (paper, glass, metal, plastic - our town takes all plastic regardless of the number) and compost anything we can. So our pounds per person per day (PPD) figure of .9 is probably on the low side of the bell curve.

Let's play with some wild numbers. Let's say the average for recycling households is more like 1.5 PPD.

The EPA states 32 percent of household waste is recycled. Of course, not everyone recycles. Let's pretend that 25 percent of households do their best.

And let's assume that 75 percent of households generate three times the 1.5 PPD rate, or 4.5 PPD.

That still only averages to 3.75 PPD for everyone.

I think the EPA numbers are sketchy.

Camille Alexa said...

I agree with your arguments (and greatly approve of your skepticism), but I wonder if the estimates also factor a per person share of waste which is not household, but is produced on behalf of the individual (how much waste is generated producing the pizza you ate last night for dinner, for example? The paper which the flour came in, the by-products of the veggies or sauce at the the factory, the tiny portion of the cleaning product bottle which was used to spritz down the counter where your pizza was prepared, etc. Are those things being included in calculations?)

Todd Wheeler said...

More rantings...

Mmnnn- yeah, the EPA numbers are based on residential, commercial/business, and institutional (e.g. schools) waste.

My bad. I thought not, though it makes sense it can't be differentiated. A ream of paper is a ream of paper, whether it is used by an individual, a school, or a business.

On the other hand, let's say a grocery store overstocks kosher chickens for Passover and winds up throwing away hundreds of pounds of meat. By living in the U.S., are we automatically complicit in the waste and ineptitude of businesses? (And that chicken thing really happened at the store I work in.)

Perhaps, the EPA figures are closer to reality than I (or the authors of 'Rubbish!') had given them credit.


I have now read the whole 164 page report I cited.

And I still think the methodology is suspect. After figuring out what is produced, the EPA subtracts recycled materials as well as stuff that is "combusted with energy recovery" (burned to generate electricity). The balance is assumed to be sent to landfills.

So, the couch with an estimated life of 20 years (wild guess on my part; not sure what lifespan the EPA gives it) is assumed to be junked and not given to one's relatives, or sold at a yard sale (or eBay), or given to a charity. Likewise kids clothes and toys (or any clothes for that matter), appliances, etc.

And yet, the EPA strategy on waste management includes advocating reuse, specifically the types of activities mentioned above. But they can't figure out how to estimate what that level of reuse actually is and adjust the PPD accordingly.

Okay, stepping off the soap box a bit, but just a bit. ;-)