April 21, 2006 | General

Editorial: Remembrances Of Garbage Past

BioCycle April 2006, Vol. 47, No. 4, p. 4
Nora Goldstein

The first BioCycle “State of Garbage In America” survey was conducted in 1988-1989. As we have discussed in these pages, tremendous changes have taken place since the pioneering times of the Earth Days in the 1970s when recycling dropoffs were held in grocery store parking lots and compost piles were maintained by gardeners who knew the value of resource recovery. Those early surveys – based on information provided by states – revealed that 250 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) were generated annually. With roughly 250 million U.S. citizens, each of us was generating one ton per year. The big question – where did it all go?
Published in 1989, the survey report identified nine states that had estimated recycling levels of 10 percent or more. The list comprised Washington (22%), Maine (17%), Oregon (16%), Vermont (15%), New Jersey (14%), Minnesota (12%), California (11%), Alabama (10%) and Florida (10%). The survey also identified 7,924 landfills in the U.S. (not including open dumps in Nebraska (290-plus) and New Mexico (150-plus). A total of 1,042 curbside recycling programs were counted in 35 states serving almost 8.5 million people. There were 651 yard trimmings composting facilities identified, with New Jersey (185), Michigan (100), Minnesota (78), Massachusetts (70) and Pennsylvania (63) topping the list. At least 16 materials recovery facilities (MRFs) processed commingled feedstocks from curbside recycling programs.
Now we fast forward from 1988-89 to 2005-06. For this year’s survey – based on 2004 MSW management data – BioCycle continued its successful collaboration with the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University to gather and analyze tonnage data from the states. We are especially grateful to Phil Simmons, a graduate student at Columbia University, for his tireless pursuit of statistically valid and comparable data, and taking the lead on putting together the State of Garbage In America report in this issue. We also appreciate the guidance and support of Professor Nickolas J. Themelis, director of the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University. Finally, we are extremely appreciative of all the help we received from state MSW management and recycling officials. Without their help, there would be no State of Garbage in America, and thus no historical tracking of how America manages its municipal waste stream.
Speaking of tracking, the latest picture of the State of Garbage in America is: Of an estimated total of 388 million tons of MSW generated, 110.4 million tons were recycled and composted, 28.9 million tons were combusted (almost all in waste-to-energy plants), and 248.6 million tons were landfilled. That breaks down into 28.5 percent recycled/composted, 7.4 percent combusted, and 64.1 percent landfilled. Per capita, Americans generate about 1.3 tons/year of MSW.
So how are we, as a nation, doing on the road to resource recovery? Compared to two years ago, we are recycling and composting a bit more – the rate increased from 26.7 percent to 28.5 percent – so that definitely is progress. Are we as far along as we should be? With recyclable and compostable materials comprising upwards of 60 percent of the MSW stream still being disposed, the answer to that question is probably not. California is a case in point. About 41 million tons of solid waste were disposed in the state’s landfills in 2003. Of that, 21 million tons were comprised of organics and paper.
Reading back through past editorials written in issues of BioCycle that contained the State of Garbage in America reports, I came across the following written by my father, Jerry Goldstein, in 1995. Truly, this sums up the State of Garbage in 2006 as well: “The pace of change never quite meets the need for change. There still is a long way to go to achieve the goals we believe are attainable. But there’s no doubt – this year’s State of Garbage numbers are moving in the right direction.”

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