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[GreenYes] Waste Not, Want Not: Trash Levels Appear to Have Held Steady in Recent Decades
From todays news at

A new survey has found that people in New York City,
and likely other U.S. cities, throw out less garbage today
 than their grandparents.

                                     "I think we all have the general
notion that we're
                                     generating more and more per person
each year," says
                                     Daniel Walsh, a geochemist at
Columbia University who
                                     conducted the research by culling
through two centuries'
                                     worth of data. "But in fact the
rate per person declined
                                     from the '40s and has been steady
in recent decades."

                                     Walsh's survey found that garbage
piles peaked in 1940
                                     when New Yorkers threw out an
average of 2,072
                                     pounds (940 kilograms) each
throughout the year. The
                                     most recent records show people in
the city now throw
                                     out less than half that amount 
about 950 pounds
                                     (430 kilograms) per person
(including recycled trash).
                                     The study published in the
Environmental Science and
                 Technology Review also showed an apparent leveling off
of trash since the 1980s.

                 The signs of steadied waste levels are not exclusive to
New York City. Walsh says he
                 has seen the same trends in other major U.S. cities
including Chicago and Boston.

                 But have we really become a waste not, want not
society? Not exactly.

                 The Dirty Old Days

                 In the 1930s and '40s, horses clopped down city streets
and were the main source of
                 transportation  and street waste. Tons of manure was
shoveled from cobblestones
                 into carriages and then tossed into local dumps, making
up 6 percent of all waste at
                 the time.

                 More significantly, heating homes was a sooty affair.
Coal provided the main source
                 of heat, and when burnt, it produces ash. The ash was
collected in metal cans and
                 made up a heaping 80 percent of the city's trash

                 By 1960, most had switched to oil or natural gas as
fuel sources, neither of which
                 produces nearly as much waste, and the change in waste
levels was dramatic. In
                 fact, 1961 and 1963 proved to be the leanest garbage
years when annual trash levels
                 shrunk to a mere 705 pounds (320 kilograms) per person.

                 "Coal produces a heavy byproduct and is heavy to
transport so there was a natural
                 movement through market forces to replace it with more
convenient materials," says

                 Similar market forces eventually prodded another trend
 the shift away from heavier
                 items like glass and metal products towards lighter
materials, namely plastics.
                 Walsh says this shift is likely the cause of steadying
of trash levels since the early

                 It also means trash has become more complicated to
dispose of since plastics
                 contain oil and are organic. Organic wastes release
carbon dioxide or sulfur dioxide
                 as they are burned or decompose, which some fear may
contribute to global

                 A fast-paced technological age has generated a surge in
newly complicated garbage.
                 Cell phones, for example, contain toxic substances
including a number of persistent
                 toxic chemicals known as PBTs. A recent study by the
environmental research
                 organization, INFORM, estimated that by 2005, Americans
will toss out 130 million
                 cell phones every year.

                 Paying for Trash

                 Many believe an effective way to stem the flow of
garbage is to make people pay for
                 throwing out their trash. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency estimates that at
                 least 61 U.S. cities have adopted so-called
"pay-as-your-throw" programs, where
                 residents pays fees for trash collection, often by
buying specially marked trash bags
                 from the city.

                 In Seattle, for example, city officials say the system
has cut annual trash levels by 15
                 percent. For cities like New York, where many
residences are in high-rise rental
                 buildings, implementing a pay-as-you-throw system can
become more complicated.

                 Benjamin Miller, author of Fat of the Land: The Garbage
Behind New York-The Last
                 Two Hundred Years, is now working with city officials
to try and establish a
                 pay-as-your-throw system in New York.

                 "I'm suggesting we do it in an incremental fashion," he
says. "We could start with
                 one-family homes in the outer boroughs and work inward
from there."

                 Even if pay-as-your-throw programs manage to hold back
garbage levels, Walsh
                 points out that less tonnage of garbage doesn't always
mean less volume. The
                 switch from metals and glass to plastics and paper, for
example, reduced overall
                 weight of trash since 1940, but volume has since
doubled because plastic and paper
                 are less dense.

                 The digital age could change all that.

                 A large part of household garbage  35 percent  is
paper, says Walsh. So he
                 believes a gradual shift from paper to digital
resources to store and access
                 information (such as, say, reading news online rather
than in newspapers) is likely to
                 reduce the volume of paper in household waste.

                 "It takes time for public attitudes to change," he
says. "But once changes happen, their
                 effects can be dramatic. Over time, the current
generation of children may be more
                 likely to replace paper with digital technology and
then we're sure to see a change."
                  Garbage Seasons

                  Not only have garbage levels fluctuated over the
years, so have its seasons.

                  Just as temperatures and scenery can change by the
month, surveys show the
                  amount of garbage people throw is also dependant on
the time of year.

                  "It's really pretty obvious, if you think about it,"
says Walsh.

                  Before effective refrigeration and transportation, New
York City garbage had very
                  distinctive seasons. During harvest time in the East 
late summer and early fall 
                  New Yorkers generated a lot of food waste. By late
fall, those levels dropped off and
                  were replaced by high volumes of ash since people
would begin heating their
                  homes with coal.

                  Today refrigerated trucks and airplanes deliver fresh
fruits and vegetables to city
                  dwellers year round so residents throw out lots of
fruit and vegetable peels in winter
                  as well as in summer. Walsh says seasonal trends in
waste appeared to mostly
                  flatten out in New York by 1970.

                  But some subtle fluctuations are still apparent.

                  Robin Nagle, an anthropology professor at New York
University has spent some
                  time riding around with New York City garbage workers
as part of her research for a
                  course she teaches on garbage.

                  "Garbage men have a unique insight into the city," she

                  One trend they have told her about is that while trash
piles peak around Christmas,
                  the amount of garbage people throw out hits a low in
January. Nagle guesses that's
                  because people have spent all their money on Christmas
and so they're buying less
                  and throwing out less.

                  Another thing she's learned while tagging along on
garbage trucks: "The trash is
                  really really gross."

                  That's one thing that probably never changes.

                   Amanda Onion

Stephan Pollard
Environmental Dynamics Ph.D. Program
University of Arkansas
Ozark Hall, Rm 12
Fayetteville, AR 72701
Tel: (479) 575-3981
Fax: (479) 575-5218

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