Along with the stock market and the foreclosure rate, a less-heralded barometer has signaled the arrival of hard times: the landfill.
In a wasteful society that typically puts 254 million tons of unwanted stuff at the curb to be thrown away each year, landfill managers said they knew something was amiss in the economy when they saw trash levels start steadily dropping last year. Some are reporting declines of up to 30 percent.
“The trash man is the first one to know about a recession because we see it first,” said Richard 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.”
It’s all part of the cycle of stuff that people in the trash business said 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.
Effects of Recession
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.
In Virginia, which takes in more out-of-state garbage than any state save one, trash professionals began noticing declines in late 2007 of 10 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.
Ben Boxer, spokesman for Fairfax County’s solid-waste-management program, said the economy also 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 usable sofas crammed into garbage bins. 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 up to 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 rethinking the way they use their plentiful stuff.
Auto repair. Appliance repair. Computer repair. Many such providers 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 (EPA) says 2 million tons of tech trash winds up in landfills each year, as do 100 million cellphones.
It comes as no surprise to economists that during recessions, consumers — whose spending drives 70 percent of the U.S. economy — choose to repair their stuff instead of throw it away.
Louis Johnston, an economist at the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, Minn., combed through Commerce Department data and found that during recessions, people tend to spend 5 percent of their household budgets on repairs.
In good times, repair spending falls, in recent years to below 1 percent. “People need to know what the future’s going to look like in order to plan for it,” Johnston said. “The more uncertain it is, the more likely people are to just stop or walk in place.”
That dictum might be seen most clearly with the stuff we wear. Retail sales have fallen or remained flat for the past five months. People aren’t buying new clothes or donating their old ones.
Sales are up at Goodwill’s nine Washington D.C. area thrift stores — 52 percent in January — but donations have fallen so much that the charity has been forced to advertise for them for the first time.
People aren’t throwing clothes away, either. The EPA says Americans discarded 7 million tons of clothing and footwear in 2007.
But this year, more people are following Cathy Willis’ example. Willis had a trunk of old sweaters and chose to “update” them instead of tossing them, donating them or buying something new.
She found Elinor Coleman, an expert “rebuttoner,” and on a recent day the two huddled over a pile of sweaters and scads of vintage buttons to re-imagine her wardrobe.
Will the reuse and repair trend last in our throwaway society?
Julia Bovey, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said yes. “I think we’re seeing a change in culture.”
However, Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, predicted that once good times roll again, so will the garbage. “We, as individuals, tend to be very acquisitive,” he said.
The most lasting change to the waste stream — manufacturers cutting down on packaging — was under way before the recession, he said, and will stick because it saves companies money.
Wal-Mart has promised to cut packaging by 5 percent. Amazon, McDonald’s, Heinz and Coca-Cola all have redesigned products and packaging to reduce waste. Cadbury has come out with chocolate eco-eggs to reduce the amount of plastic used in packaging every year by more than 200 tons.
In 2007, according to the EPA, 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 were 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 they will be full in 20 years.
Between Thanksgiving and the new year, environmentalists said, Americans typically throw away up to 5 million extra tons of trash, thought to be mainly wrapping paper and shopping bags.
Source: The Seattle Times Company
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