Amid Recession, People Throwing Less Away
JACKI LYDEN, host:
There are a lot of ways to figure out how much less are consuming. You could dive into the statistics, check the traditional economic indicators, or you can go to the dump.
At the transfer station in Montgomery County, Maryland, there's a line of trucks full of all kinds of waste: household trash, construction materials, branches and leaves from landscaping work.
Here's manager Peter Karasik.
Mr. PETER KARASIK (Manager, Montgomery County Transfer Station): When the economy was healthier, we'd have this line wrapping out all the way back towards (unintelligible) scale house (unintelligible) even do a loop through the parking lot. So, you know, right now, we probably have about, I don't know, 10 or 15 trucks in line.
You know, there are times a couple of years ago where we might have had 100 or 150 trucks in line, whipping around the site during the big part of the day. So, we really noticed the, you know, the difference.
LYDEN: He says the facility usually takes about 600,000 tons of waste per year. This year, he expects 50,000 tons less.
Mr. KARASIK: Fewer people are moving in and out of houses, which means that there's less moving waste. And, you know, fewer people are buying items in stores, so there's less packaging waste. And kind of it's a whole domino effect that goes down. So, we've definitely seen it here. We've seen about a 10 percent drop in residential waste and over a 50 percent drop in construction and demolition material coming into the site.
LYDEN: The trucks go into a concrete building about the size of a football field. Here, they tip their trash into a pit, where two bulldozers push the waste into a compactor. A couple of years ago on a busy day, this entire floor would be covered in trash. Now, it's all neatly off to one side.
Peter Karasik says whatever's going on in the country, the garbage guys are among the first to know.
Mr. KARASIK: When the economy slows down, we get less waste coming into the transfer station. The people who come here to drop off their waste, in a lot of ways, we learn little snippets about their lives. You know, we've had people come in with tears in their eyes because their home has been foreclosed on and they've been told to clear out the house and it's just painful for them (unintelligible) be here to drop off the waste, and people who (unintelligible), you know, maybe seen as customers over the years.
You know, we get the small contractors who we used to see every day, who may be just coming in once a week now because they have less work. And then they'll say, gee, things have slowed down a lot. I haven't seen you around too much.
LYDEN: And it's not just in Maryland. It's all over the country.
Mr. GARY BAUGHMAN (Director, Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment): We definitely had a decline in the volume in municipal solid waste in Colorado.
Mr. TIM STEPP (Environmental Engineer, Solid Waste Program, Montana Department of Environmental Quality): Well, in Montana, we - some of the people we regulate have told me that they have seen a considerable reduction in the amount of waste.
Mr. DAVE NEAL (Director, Solid Waste Management, Ada County): Well, in Idaho, we've noticed a significant decrease in the amount of waste coming into the landfill.
LYDEN: That was Dave Neal in Idaho. Before him, Gary Baughman from Colorado and Tim Stepp from Montana.
For the bigger picture, we turn to Jim Thompson. He's a waste industry analyst - how's that for a title - and the president of the Waste Business Journal.
Mr. JIM THOMPSON (President, Waste Business Journal): Nationally, the results are a little less drastic than what you witnessed there in Maryland. But we've seen that residential volumes are down about five percent, which is really the first time we've seen a decline in residential volumes in the 20 years that we've been tracking the industry. Volumes from businesses and especially from what are called construction and demolition debris waste are down much more drastically, around 15 percent last year.
LYDEN: And how is this linked to the recession? Are people just hanging(ph) on to things with your life?
Mr. THOMPSON: We're assuming that this is a change in people's habits, that it's driving them to consume less and therefore, throw away less.
LYDEN: Are we still making more trash than we were a decade ago?
Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, in the big picture we are. In the longer term, we've seen steadily increase in volume of waste, especially since per capita discards had been steadily increasing from the '60s up until about two years ago.
LYDEN: Huh. I'd imagine that almost everyone hearing this is thinking that this is a piece of good news coming out of the recession, because we're making less trash. I wonder if you think that's going to last?
Mr. THOMPSON: I'm no great economic prognosticator, but I can't imagine that we'll continue in this sort of economic malaise for too long. And before long we'll start back to our old behaviors, which is generating waste.
LYDEN: Jim Thompson is the president of the Waste Business Journal. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Mr. THOMPSON: It was my pleasure. Thank you.