A century ago, when Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSWM) systems were new, New York City garbage collectors picked up more than 1,200 pounds of waste per resident per year. But in 1905, three-quarters of that waste was coal ashes. Fifteen percent was garbage. Only eight percent was "rubbish"-- everything else from scrap paper to old mattresses, the discards that are now called "product waste" (Morse 1908).
Today, the ashes are gone from household waste but local waste managers are dealing with more than 1,600 pounds of waste per person per year. "Product waste" is now three-quarters of what people throw away. And despite huge public investments in recycling since the 1980s, most of that waste is still buried in landfills or burned.
MSWM systems were set up a century ago in the United States to protect public health. They have become a perverse public subsidy for the Throwaway Society. More and better waste management at public expense has given unlimited license to proliferate discards. Today these systems collect 3.4 pounds of product waste a day for each American man, woman, and child--twice as much as in 1960 and ten times as much as 100 years ago. It is time to revamp the system so that it no longer supports the throwaway habit.
The evolution of trash
The MSWM system includes wastes from residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial sources but not industrial process wastes. As the term "municipal solid waste" implies, local governments play a key role in delivering services, planning, and regulation.
Crowding in industrial cities in the 19th Century gave rise to repeated epidemics of contagious disease and created political support for public investment in municipal sanitation, first to provide clean water and sewerage and later, at the turn of the century, to collect and dispose of refuse. Municipal refuse included not only household waste but also massive quantities of feces from horses and other animals. Pressure from citizen groups like the Ladies Health Protective Association in New York City and the Municipal Order League in Chicago compelled cities to replace or supplement the private "cart men" who collected refuse with uniformed garbage collectors paid by the city. By 1930, MSWM had been organized in most cities.
Since that early survey of garbage pickup in New York City, people have continued to discard about the same amounts of food waste. A new category, yard trimmings, has been added. Coal ash is now treated as industrial waste, not household waste. The key change, however, has been the ten-fold rise in product waste, from 92 to 1,242 pounds per person per year. Containers and packaging now represent 32 percent of all municipal solid waste. Non-durable goods (products used less than three years) are 27 percent, and durable goods are 16 percent.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has been keeping statistics on MSW since 1960, with the most recent update being for 2001 (EPA 2003). During the last 40 years of the 20th Century, total municipal solid waste grew from 88 million tons per year to 230 million tons, an increase driven almost entirely by product wastes.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the public began to see polluted, overflowing municipal landfills as a crisis. The understanding also grew that the world's economies were using natural resources at a rate that is unsustainable. Proponents of sustainable development suggested that advanced economies such as those of the United States and Canada would need to reduce per capita material flows to one-tenth of modern levels to meet the needs of future generations of the world living at our standards. Accordingly, in 1989 the US EPA established the following hierarchy of "integrated waste management" practices for municipalities:
Thousands of local governments decommissioned local landfills and built new ones that would better contain contaminants. Local governments also invested public resources in recycling programs that would reduce the flow of MSW to landfills and incinerators.
- Reduce wastes at the source (e.g. by backyard composting, product reuse);
- Recover wastes (e.g. by recycling, municipal composting);
- Dispose everything else in an environmentally sound way.
How effective have these programs been? The big success story has been composting and reuse of yard trimmings. This started around 1988 and has risen steadily by an average of 1.18 million tons per year since then. In 2000, 56.5 percent of all yard trimmings entering the MSWM system were being recycled in some way rather than burned or sent to landfills.
After 20 years of municipal investment in recycling programs, however, more than 70 percent of all municipal solid waste is still being buried or burned rather than recovered. The disposal rate has decreased gradually (it was 90 percent in 1980), but in the last decade the decrease has been driven mainly by the recovery of yard trimmings. Product waste recycling has leveled off at about 30 percent of the product wastes that enter the system. Four-fifths of the disposed waste goes to landfills, the rest to incinerators. Meanwhile, we continue to generate and discard more and more products.
What municipal solid waste systems can't do
Why has recycling not kept up with the increase in product waste? Why are such large quantities of both product and non-product waste (especially food scraps) still ending up in landfills and incinerators?
The answers to these questions lie in an inherent limitation of current systems for handling product wastes. For these wastes, the EPA's "integrated waste management" strategy is largely beyond the control of the MSWM system. The system cannot reduce wastes at the source and it cannot require products to be designed for recycling or safe disposal.
Waste prevention lies entirely outside the boundaries of the MSWM system. And outside the boundaries of the system, reducing waste at the source brings little benefit. In 1999 EPA identified a number of challenges facing waste recovery efforts, including the lack of market demand for collected materials and product design that makes materials difficult to recycle (US EPA 1999, p. 125 ff). There is no incentive to buy recycled material, whereas waste managers must continue to offer these materials for sale, even when oversupply drives prices down. Product manufacturers derive no benefits from designing products that are easy to recycle or safe to bury or burn, nor do they incur any costs when their products cause environmental damage after disposal.
If managing product wastes were an extension of the production and consumption system, and the costs and benefits of waste management accrued to producers, these problems would begin to find solutions. Instead, MSWM has enabled the marketing of disposable convenience products, whose convenience is provided by the MSWM system at public expense. The provision of universal collection and disposal of product wastes created conditions that made the Throwaway Society a natural response to the laws of the market.
Giving up on sustainability
The MSWM system was originally set up to manage a waste stream made up of relatively homogeneous materials such as ash and biowastes. It cannot mirror the exquisitely complex marketing and distribution system that gets products to consumers in the first place, so it cannot easily optimize the value of product wastes. MSW managers tend to favor large-scale facilities for mixed waste because they are easier to control and more predictable in cost (Murray 1999).
The practice of managing mixed waste means that great quantities of biodegradable materials, including unrecycled paper, yard trimmings, and nearly all food scraps, are being discarded, mainly in landfills, where they produce methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Landfills are the largest human-made source of methane in the United States. New studies suggest that landfill gas collection systems may be far less efficient than previously thought, and that proposed "bioreactor" landfills may actually exacerbate the problem in the short term (Anderson 2005).
With product waste recovery stalled and the proportion of waste sent to landfills and incinerators still at around 70 percent, MSWM practitioners are turning to other schemes such as recovering thermal energy from incinerators and gas from landfills. But recycling saves far more energy than those technologies produce (Morris 2005). By trying to recover energy from mixed waste, waste managers are conceding defeat on the goals set in the 1980s to stem materials flows and conserve resources.
Make producers responsible
Extending producers' responsibility for managing products when consumers are done with them is a promising alternative to the current system of handling product wastes. Known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), this policy approach requires producers (brand-owners) to manage their products at the end of their lives through an infrastructure financed by producers and provided as a service to consumers. To be sure, consumers ultimately pay for improved environmental performance, but including end-of-life management costs in product prices is what drives innovation toward sustainable products and services.
The precursor to EPR was the refillable container system developed a century ago by the beverage industry. Ironically, this system is all but extinct now in North America because of two public policies. One was public investment in the national highway system, which made it more economical to ship one-way from distant production facilities than to operate local bottling plants. The other was the MSWM system, which took care of the empties.
EPR has a small foothold in the US, where 11 states have established take-back programs for beverage containers. Maine adopted legislation in 2004 requiring manufacturers to finance the recycling of computers and TVs collected by municipalities.
Canada has gone much further. Since 199l EPR has become established policy in Canada for many products (Sheehan and Spiegelman 2005). Ontario and Quebec are introducing a form of EPR that relies on MSWM to recover product waste for recycling, with partial reimbursement by industry. Other provinces are allowing producers to form their own product return and recycling systems, while government sets standards and ensures compliance. Comparing the two approaches will provide guidance for future policy.
We believe government policy at all levels should expedite a transition to separate, complementary EPR and MSWM systems.
MSWM should focus on environmentally sound management of food wastes and yard clippings generated in communities. Government policy should direct the MSWM system to provide separate collection and treatment of organic materials and encourage research and development in this area. Landfill regulations in North America should set a date for a sharp reduction in landfilled biowastes, as the European Union did in a 1999 directive. Municipal biowaste management programs should ensure that certain kinds of non-recyclable fiber products (such as waxed cardboard, food-soiled paper products, sanitary products, and other low-grade paper products) are safe for biodegradation. These products must also pay their way through the system.
Product wastes should increasingly be managed through infrastructure provided and funded by producers as part of the production and consumption system. Governments at all levels can send clear policy signals that EPR is the direction of the future. They can issue policy resolutions and white papers; ban disposal of products that can be recycled; require EPR systems for a continually increasing range of products, and then keep EPR products out of the waste system; and they can impose disposal surcharges.
The MSWM system begun a century ago has contributed to the unsustainable growth of material flows in advanced industrial economies. It is not designed for effective management of product wastes. EPR is a promising alternative, but the MSWM system must be adapted to support it. MSWM must gradually withdraw its service for product wastes and expand treatment of source-separated organics. This will, in turn, support sustainable production and consumption and protect public health.
Anderson, P. 2005. Critical Review of EPA Model to Estimate Landfills' Responsibility for Greenhouse Gases. Center for a Competitive Waste Industry, Madison, Wisconsin, USA, in press.
Morris, J. 2005. "Comparative LCAs for curbside recycling versus either landfilling or incineration with energy recovery," International Journal of Life Cycle Analysis, in press.
Morse, W.F. 1908. "The Collection and Disposal of Municipal Waste." The Municipal Journal and Engineer, New York, NY, USA.
Murray, R. 1999. Creating Wealth from Waste. Demos, London, UK.
Sheehan, B., and Spiegelman, H. 2005. "Extended Producer Responsibility Policies in the United States and Canada: History and Status." In D. Scheer & F. Rubik, editors, Governance and Sustainability: The Case of Integrated Product Policy, Greenleaf Publishing/UK, in press. Available at http://www.productpolicy.org/assets/EPR-US-Canada-01-2005.pdf
US EPA. 2003. Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures. US Environmental Protection Agency. Available at http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/msw99.htm
This article is adapted from the Issue Brief, Unintended Consequences: Municipal Solid Waste Management and the Throwaway Society, (Athens, GA: Product Policy Institute, March 2005). Available at www.productpolicy.org/resources/ .
The Product Policy Institute is an independent nonprofit research and communications organization focusing on the link between production and consumption, on the one hand, and waste generation and disposal on the other, in order to promote public policies that encourage more sustainable practices. Helen Spiegelman is President of the Product Policy Institute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bill Sheehan is Director of the Product Policy Institute (Athens, Georgia). He can be reached at email@example.com or www.productpolicy.org.