The Trash Blog

How We Measure Garbage

Usually, it’s the abstract things that are hard to measure: love, pain, intelligence, and so forth, but it turns out that garbage is also pretty difficult to pin down. I’ve always found it interesting that the discourse on waste accepts that weight is the best way to measure garbage.

Most figures on garbage are reported in weight: the US produces 250 million tons of MSW each year, per capita garbage production is 4.38 pounds per day, the stadium in San Diego diverted 164 tons from the landfill in 2011. Most likely, we talk about garbage by weight because weight is what matters when you collect and transport garbage. The heavier something is, the more it’s going to cost to move it around.

Black Garbage BagsLandfills and incinerators also charge by weight, but this seems to be a measure of convenience rather than accuracy. It’s hard to believe that landfill operators are concerned about the weight of all the garbage they are compressing. Volume is the big issue for them. Landfills fill up, they don’t reach max load.

Weight might be a little more relevant for an incinerator because weight could indicate water content, which has an impact on how well the incinerator functions. Of course, weight could also indicate a dense material with a high BTU content. From what I’ve seen and read, space is more of a limiting factor than weight for how much garbage goes onto the grates where incinerators fire the stuff.

Nobody is talking about cubic meters of garbage produced, even though you empty your garbage can when it’s full, not so much when it’s heavy. In addition, most curbside and commercial collection programs charge by some form of volume: you pay for full cans or dumpsters. And in conversations about our waste problems, people are far more concerned with the space garbage requires than with its weight.

PlasticsVolume probably won’t ever be used as a measure for garbage because it is an ever-changing mark. What occupied four or five cubic feet in your garbage can, gets compressed by compactor trucks to occupy much less space. Once at the landfill it gets compacted even further by massive steel wheels, and as time goes on, even further by the weight of more garbage piled on top.

But using weight as our standard is not perfect: weight leads to statements by various groups about the relative importance of their material in the waste stream. The plastics industry is very happy to point out that plastics are a small portion of the waste stream–by weight. There may be more glass by weight in the waste stream, but glass is inert and not something we have to worry about leaching into groundwater supplies.

I haven’t got a better solution. Beyond weight, every measure of garbage I can think of is pretty impracticable. It’s good to keep in mind, though, that weight blurs over some very important details about our waste.

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This entry was written by Philip and published on May 22, 2014 at 12:24 pm. It’s filed under Plastic, Theory and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “How We Measure Garbage

  1. Uncle Chris on said:

    As the generators of trash become more sophisticated regarding their reduction, reuse, and classification of their waste, so will the collectors, transporters, recyclers, and storers of garbage become more sophisticated regarding the manner in which they measure and charge for the trash they handle.

    However, governmental policy makers frequently presume the processes they seek to regulate will not change. Hence, a set of rules issued while economic factors motivate substantial modifications of the processes being regulated may quickly become irrelevant or counter productive. This is a challenge for government, especially progressive government, whose universe of problems is greater than more pragmatic forms.

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