The big number that gets around in garbage is that the US produces 250 million tons of municipal solid waste every year. That’s a lot of garbage. A number that gets far less press, and for which the most recent statistic comes from 1987, is that 7.6 billion tons of nonhazardous industrial waste get produced in the US every year. As a percentage of industrial waste, MSW is 3%.
There is very little information about nonhazardous industrial wastes because the vast majority are disposed on-site. There is no federal regulation requiring that industries report on their nonhazardous wastes, and very few states have such regulations. You will hear that as much as 97% of nonhazardous industrial wastes are disposed in surface impoundments and therefore is covered by Clean Water Act regulations. According to Samantha MacBride, author of Recycling Reconsidered, this is not the case.
According to INFROM Inc’s report, Extended Producer Responsibility: a Materials Recovery Policy for the 21st Century: “All told, an estimated 23 billion tons of waste (excluding water) are produced in the US each year.”
So we have a waste stream in the US that is 30 times greater than MSW which we last measured in the 1980s, for which there are no reporting requirements, and of which we do not know the constituent materials nor their ratios. Given the extensive yammering about MSW, isn’t it surprising that we are so complacent about nonhazardous industrial wastes?
An opinion I’ve held, but am now questioning, was that MSW represented a “higher-order” of waste casting a massive shadow, similar to the way that predators represent a large amount of energy in an ecosystem because of all the organisms necessary to support them. This belief is not based on any evidence. The GrassRoots Recycling Network has reported in Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 that “Few studies have documented how much manufacturing, mining, and energy related wasting could actually be eliminated for every ton of municipally generated discards reduced or recovered.”
Another answer may be that our society assumes that industries are more responsible than individuals and therefore these wastes are either not as problematic as MSW or are dealt with in such a responsible manner they do not require extensive regulation or oversight.
Here’s the question then: are consumers more wasteful than producers? In my mind, at least, there is an unstated belief that individuals are far more frivolous and wasteful than companies or industries. Is it realistic?
I tend to think that individuals in the US are pretty wasteful. We are lazy and like to take the easy way out of most situations. We like our conveniences and our pleasures and rarely choose to do things the hard way if we have an easy option, no matter the wastes incurred. We are particularly susceptible to short-term thinking. 250 million tons of garbage per year.
My thoughts about industry are usually the opposite: they are in the business of making money; they have a financial interest in not wasting things. They probably have folks who’s dedicated job it is to squeeze every ounce of profit out of whatever materials they purchase. 7.6 billion tons of garbage per year.
Perhaps you have found yourself thinking the same thing. But let’s let the assumption go for a second. Let’s go back to the numbers from the first paragraph. Producing 7.6 billion tons of waste a year, it is clear that US industry is not perfect at using every last drop. In fact, the amount of industrial waste is so much bigger than municipal, it almost makes you think that producers are more wasteful than consumers.
Afterall, why should producers be saints of thriftiness? When I’ve been involved in industrial processes, the emphasis is on producing whatever it is that makes a profit, not on running a tight ship. The industrial interest is to sell more widgets than anyone else, not to produce widgets with the least amount of waste.