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At one time it appeared that America might one day virtually drown in its own waste.

The trend-line of trash generation had gone steeply upward since anyone began tracking it more than 50 years ago. From 1960 to 1990, generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) had grown from 2.68 lbs. per person per day to 4.57 lbs. per person per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Coupled with population growth, this resulted in 208.3 million tons of solid waste generated in 1990, nearly 2.5 times the 88.1 million tons generated in 1960.

At that rate of growth, we would have by now been bulldozing more than a half-billion tons of waste per year. However, not long after that, things turned around. Solid waste generation per person per day peaked in 2000. Meanwhile, today’s per capita waste generation rate is the lowest since the 1980s.

“Based on EPA data, the tonnage of waste going to landfills has slowly declined since 1990,” said Sharon Kneiss, president and CEO of the National Waste & Recycling Association. “According to EPA data, landfills received ten million fewer tons in 2012 than in 1990,” she adds. “At the same time, recycling and composting increased by 53 million tons.”

EPA’s latest report, based on 2012 data, shows that Americans produced 251 million tons of trash. That was up just 20 percent in 22 years from 1990, compared with the 242 percent increase in 30 years from 1960 to 1990.

In addition to growing in tonnage, recycling also accounts for a much larger portion of the waste stream. In 1980, less than 10 percent of municipal solid waste was recycled. Today, the recycling and composting rate exceeds 34 percent. The average American in 2012 recycled or composted 1.51 lbs. per day, for 87 million tons a year – nearly as much as the total national amount of waste in 1960.

Over time, waste has become less dominant and recycling has become more prominent. One example of that is The National Waste & Recycling Association, which recently changed its name from National Solid Wastes Management Association as part of a merger.

But new names and shifts in size and disposition of the waste stream suggest that changes are afoot without clarifying what those changes might be. For instance, one question is whether, as more localities implement or expand recycling, that has been the only factor in declining volumes of material being sent to landfills.

Kneiss said greater rates of recycling and composting have, indeed, helped reduce the amount of material being sent to landfills. However, another important factor in the lower landfill tonnages, she said, is that today’s landfilled material tends to be lighter in weight. For example, it contains significantly less printed paper, which weighs more than the plastics and other packaging that have replaced printed paper for many uses.

Economic trends are another factor. For instance, Kneiss said, the 2008 recession, which was more severe than any that has occurred since the waste stream has been comprehensively measured, helped depress production of all kinds of waste, including packaging. That recession was particularly hard on the construction industry and, as a result, construction and demolition (C&D) volumes were negatively affected.

A primary source of revenue for landfills is tipping fees charged to waste haulers, demolition firms and others. So it’s natural to wonder whether tipping fees are falling as landfills compete for a stable or shrinking volume of landfilled material. And, if that is happening, whether landfill operators are feeling the economic impact and perhaps looking for other revenue sources.

Kneiss said, tipping fees continue to be viable financial supports for the landfill industry. Fees are not showing any effects of downward pressure. In fact, it’s the opposite. “Based on national surveys, tipping fees continue to slowly rise,” she said.

Landfills tend to be long-lived facilities, sometimes operating for decades. And some of today’s landfills were planned and constructed back when it seemed that the national waste stream would continue to expand strongly, rather than staying flat or even declining. So it seems that one effect of the moderation of waste would be to extend the lifespans of existing landfills.

According to Kneiss, that’s happening. “Recycling, composting and other changes in waste management have clearly extended existing landfill lifespan,” she said. “We do not have specific data on the extent, but anecdotal evidence shows fewer new facilities being sited and delays in opening new cells at permitted facilities.”

Don’t look for landfills to go away, or for new landfills to stop being sited and built, however. “Additional landfills will always be in the mix,” Kneiss said. “Even though landfilling is declining, we continue to landfill more than 135 million tons of MSW and a large amount of C&D and industrial non-hazardous waste. America will need disposal capacity for a long period of time.”

One thing observers can expect to see is a more diverse look to the waste management industry. At one time, it was all about landfilling, but no more. “Solid waste management companies are increasingly involved in all aspects of materials management and are continuing to seek innovations in waste management, including recycling, composting and anaerobic digestion and are working with customers on better management of their waste streams,” Kneiss said. Organic waste is one area seeing a lot of activity today.

A look at the recent past of the solid waste and recycling industry suggests that current levels of waste generation will continue to stagnate or decline, while recycling is almost certain to increase. That’s going to mean yet more change for members of those fields.

“In a market economy, companies evolve to meet the needs of their customers,” Kneiss said. “The waste and recycling industry will continue to meet this challenge. And they will continue to look for opportunities to address the challenges in recycling, including getting a handle on the fluctuating economics, finding new markets for recycled material, educating consumers about putting only the right materials in the stream, meeting customer demands and ensuring high quality products.”

Published in the April 2014 Edition of American Recycler News