Slowing economy curbs garbage

Trash is Kevin Kiernan's business, and he has a theory about why there has been a recent decline in the amount being collected.

It's the economy, says Kiernan, director of the King County Division of Solid Waste in the state of Washington.

Waste tonnage declines of 3% to 12% have been reported over time frames ranging from the past several months to the past year by solid waste managers across the USA.

"Garbage typically hasn't been called an economic indicator, but we firmly believe it is," Kiernan said.

Trash tonnage in King County dropped by 7% in the fourth quarter of 2007, "and continues to stay about 7% behind," he said.

Bucknell University economist Thomas Kinnaman, editor of The Economics of Residential Solid Waste Management, agrees.

"Solid waste production goes up and down with the economy," he said.

Kinnaman added that much of the decline is a result of the slowdown in the housing market.

"We see our own garbage, and we think that's what fills up landfills," Kinnaman says. "But a big chunk of landfills is construction debris. It's not so much that we're buying fewer 2-liter soda bottles. It's less construction going on."

Recycling is also part of the reduction, waste disposal managers say. But according to Ron Mills, executive director for the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, the current slowdown is too widespread and has happened too recently for that to be a big part of the equation.

Recycling efforts "don't represent that big of a piece to account for the kinds of fluctuations we're seeing in the amounts going into the landfills," Mills said.

"When there's less disposable income, less is disposed of," he said.

Lori Scozzafava, deputy executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, says similar waste-tonnage reductions have happened before.

"We have seen in the past that with downturns in the economy, disposal tonnage reduces, " she said.

Construction and demolition-related waste "has taken a substantial dip in the past two or three years," said William Merry, general manager for the Monterey (Calif.) Regional Waste Management District. "People just aren't as active in construction and demolition," he said.

Anecdotal evidence supports the theory that tough economic times are meaning less waste:

• Lancaster County, Pa. "For the first six months (of 2008) we've seen a 3% decline, year-over-year," said Jim Warner, county Solid Waste Management Authority executive director.

• Columbus, Ohio. "Last year, we took in 871,000 tons. This year we're on track to take in closer to 820,000 tons," said Mills of the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio.

• Cape Coral, Fla. "We have seen a slowdown in what has been set out at the curb," said Larry Berg, the district's manager for Waste Management.

"When you see that from our perspective, people aren't buying as much or buying the large-ticket items," he said.

•Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, N.C. The 19% decline in construction debris in 2008 is "more likely related to economic factors" said Jan McHargue, solid waste administrator.

•Los Angeles County, Calif. "Most pronounced is a decline in construction and demolition waste, as real estate construction slows along with the economy," said Grace Chan, solid waste management director.

Less waste is good news for the environment and for managers looking to squeeze longer lives out of landfills. It can also be a budget-buster for systems that rely on fees charged per ton.

"We rely on people to throw things away, to make money. Cash flow has been a problem for the past two years, because of (declining) quantities," said John Hadfield, who retired Aug. 1 as executive director for Southeastern Public Service Authority in Chesapeake, Va.

Ruane reports for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla. Contributing: Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY; Glenn Miller, The News-Press.