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One result of the recession: Less trash

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The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT) - For regular folks who seek answers during these recessionary times, the traditional economic bellwethers _ from inventories to durable-goods orders _ may lack resonance.

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Highlights

By Tom Avril
McClatchy Newspapers (www.mctdirect.com)
4/23/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in Home & Food

Now comes an economic indicator that hits home _ specifically in the area beneath your kitchen sink.

The trash can.

For the second year in a row, the amount of waste generated in the United States has gone down, according to a new report from the consulting firm Waste Business Journal. The decline in 2007 _ from 513 million tons to 508 million _ was the first in more than 20 years, said James Thompson, the firm's president.

In 2008, the tally fell further, to 505 million tons, including some construction debris and other nonresidential discards. And it's not due to any increased diligence when it comes to setting aside newspapers and aluminum cans. Those figures are the total before recycling. Similar signs are present in Pennsylvania, the leading trash importer in the country.

In a nation where the consumer is king, is a shift under way?

For the waste-disposal industry, it has long been axiomatic that trash and the economy are stuck together like old gum on the bottom of a garbage pail.

"If we've got less money, we generate less trash," said Van Cooper, president of the union local that represents Philadelphia sanitation workers.

If Philadelphia is any guide, the drop-off was especially stark during last year's fourth quarter, a season traditionally awash in discarded wrappings and tinsel. The city's quarterly trash total fell more than 100,000 tons compared with the fourth quarter of 2007, from 518,272 to 415,802, according to figures from the state Department of Environmental Protection. That's a drop of nearly 20 percent.

The news may cheer environmentalists, if it means the decreased consumption is a result of some sort of broad change in our have-it-now, chuck-it-tomorrow society. But will a thrifty mind-set catch on for good, as it did among some who endured the Great Depression?

Too soon to tell, said Daniel T. Cook, a sociologist who studies consumer culture at Rutgers University in Camden.

"The question is, of course, to what extent is this permanent?" Cook said. "Have people reevaluated something, or are they waiting for their particular world to pick up?"

Mind you, the waste pile is still pretty big _ especially in Pennsylvania, which accepts lots of the stuff from New Jersey and New York. Pennsylvania generated 14.6 million tons of its own in 2008 and took in 7.1 million tons from other states.

But both those totals are down. David Buzzell, a Drinker, Biddle & Reath lawyer who represents the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, said the in-state drop was probably tied to the economy.

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The drop in imported waste occurred partly because trash has been heading to states with lower taxes than Pennsylvania's, he said.

At the state's largest waste-handling complex _ the vast three-landfill facility owned by Waste Management Inc. in Lower Bucks County _ the decline last year was modest, from 3.4 million tons to 3.3 million. According to DEP figures, the dip is attributable entirely to a drop in out-of-state trash. The Pennsylvania contribution to the Bucks County site remains about the same.

"Year over year over year, we're fairly consistent," said Robert Iuliucci, Waste Management's senior district manager, as he drove through the mountainous 6,000-acre site in a white Ford Expedition.

Hour after hour, tractor-trailers disgorge their stream of banana peels, candy wrappers, and egg cartons, which are then spread flat by bulldozer and flattened by 120,000-pound compactor trucks. A throng of hungry seagulls hovers overhead.

The Bucks site has two older landfills _ dubbed G.R.O.W.S. (Geological Reclamation of Waste Services) and the Tullytown Resource Recovery Complex _ and it added a third last year, called G.R.O.W.S. North.

Though clearly the lifeblood of the waste industry, trash has been slow to catch on as a statistic among professional economy-watchers.

Among those who like it is R. Lawrence Swanson, director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at New York's Stony Brook University.

Unlike some government data that come out months after the fact, trash totals are immediate, he said. By that measure, the recession is still going on.

On Long Island, Swanson said, municipal waste haulers are seeing a decline so far this year, when spring cleanups traditionally have meant a trash bonanza.

"We consider it an excellent indicator and a precursor of the economy," Swanson said.

Then there's the Economist magazine, which once pitted the financial smarts of trash collectors _ "dustmen" _ against those of Oxford University students, company chairmen, and former government finance ministers.

The four groups made economic predictions for 10 years. When the results were reported in 1995, the best performers were the company chairmen and _ yup _ the dustmen.

For Cooper, the Philadelphia union official, it's no great mystery.

"They try to deal with trash like it's rocket science," he said of those who probe the totals for some deeper meaning. "Trash is trash."

___

© 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer.



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