America, we are told, has become a "throw-away" society and unless something is done to correct this problem, we may all be "Buried Alive," [1] with "Tons and Tons of Trash and No Place to put It." [2] Short of drastic action, "Garbage dumps will cover the country coast to coast and garbage trucks will stop in everybody's backyard." [3]

Is there really a solid waste problem (no one calls it garbage, it's now "solid waste") in the sense that we have something on our hands that either should never have been there in the first place, or being there we now find we can't get rid of? Or is the present sound of alarm little more than one more opportunity for the exercise of journalistic hyperbole, if not political opportunism?

If there is such a thing as a "solid waste problem," is it a problem in all regions of the country or just in some regions of the country? Is it a problem in all parts of Michigan in the same way it may be a problem in, say, the northeastern quadrant of the United States? Is it a problem only in some parts of Michigan and not in others?

This study is aimed at seeing Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) as a technical economic problem which can be solved without resort to the use of "good guy"/ "bad guy" terminology. We will argue that solid waste can be managed in an environmentally acceptable way through the natural interplay of market forces. Furthermore, this study will argue that resort to specific ad hoc government mandates for one type of material over another, or one type of waste management technique over another, could very well be counterproductive.

Americans do generate a lot of garbage. After all, we are a wealthy people and wealthy people buy, use, and dispose of a lot of materials. According to a 1988 study prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, American families produced 2.7 pounds of trash per person per day in 1960. By 1987 this figure had increased to 3.5 pounds per day and is projected to increase by an additional 20 percent by the year 2000. [4]

By contrast, we are told, Japanese citizens produce only 76 percent of the amount of garbage produced per person in the U.S.; France produces only 60 percent of the U.S. level; and West Germany only 40 percent. [5]

Do these data and comparisons really mean that America is a "throw away society?" To say that we are is to make a moral judgment – i.e., there is something morally wrong with a "throw away society." However, even though the amount of garbage estimated to be thrown away per person per day increased 29.6 percent between 1960 and 1987, real inflation-adjusted per-capita disposable income, which measures the average capacity of every American to consume goods, increased 135 percent over the same period. In addition, the percentage of all Americans between the ages of 16 and 65 gainfully employed (i.e., the "work force participation rate") rose from 56.1 percent to 61.5 percent – an all-time high. [6]

Taken together, these data are an indication of a robust economy in which more and more people are working outside the home. If anything, the relatively small increase in the amount of trash discarded compared to the increase in disposable income and employment may allow one to conclude that while we do generate a lot of trash, we do not deserve the negative moral judgment which attaches to the term "throw away society."

These reports also tell us that about 85 percent of the American solid waste stream is disposed of in landfills, 10 percent is recycled/reused, and five percent is burned. By contrast, Japan landfills about 27 percent of its municipal solid waste, recycles 50 percent, and burns 23 percent to create energy. The corresponding figures for West Germany are: 55 percent landfilled, 15 percent recycled/reused, and 30 percent incinerated. [7] In France, where disposal costs are almost three times higher than in the U.S., one-third of municipal solid waste (MSW) is incinerated, 7 percent is composted, 52 percent is landfilled, and the 9 percent balance is listed under "other" with no additional explanation. [8]

When national and international cross-section comparisons are to be made, all data claiming to show what percent of any nation's or region's waste stream is currently landfilled, recycled, or burned should be viewed with caution. [9] For one thing, such data are derived from random-sample survey over different points in time and, especially for the United States, only from those areas of the country where such data can be most easily obtained. For example, the most commonly reported data for the U.S. are based on sample surveys from 1986 whereas data for both Japan and West Germany are based on 1984.

In addition, the Japanese data are misleading in that they deduct the amount of waste Japanese families send to secondary materials markets from the waste they actually generate in arriving at the conclusion that the Japanese produce only 76% of the waste produced by the typical American family.

When a more complete "net-discards" analysis is used, the U.S. figure is about 3.2 pounds, for West Germany 2.6 pounds, Sweden 2.4, Switzerland 2.2, and Japan, a surprising 3.0 pounds. Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Hungary, New Zealand, and Korea have generation rates similar to the United States. [10]

In his interesting study of American landfills, Dr. William L. Rathje of the University of Arizona, [11] reports that it may or may not be true that Americans throw away about 3.5 pounds of garbage per person, per day. His analysis of landfill contents compared with local population densities in various regions of the United States strongly suggests that for many areas the actual figure may be much less than 3.5 pounds per person, per day. Short of surveying every specific region and obtaining hard data, the truth is that no one can ever know with anything near perfect statistical certainty just how much is thrown away.

As economic conditions change, patterns of waste disposal and waste management change. The Newsweek (November 27, 1989), article which painted such a stark picture of America's solid waste situation (we shall argue that the problem is not "America's Problem", but a problem affecting only certain regions of the nation), also points out that in Japan, rising family incomes and the increase in the number of families in which both adults work outside the home have combined to reduce their percentage of waste recycled/reused from 50 percent to 40 percent while improvements in mass-burn technology have increased the proportion burned.

For the U.S., recycling/reuse has risen from near 10 percent to 15 percent and the amount landfilled has decreased. [12] James E. McCarthy, Issue Coordinator of the Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division of the Congressional Research Service, says that the landfilling figure is not 80 or 85 percent, but 70 percent. [13]

Even these figures must be taken with caution. A recent national survey of state solid waste management officials conducted by BioCycle magazine reveals that there is no clear definition of municipal solid waste. [14] Some state reports include sewage sludge, industrial waste, and demolition debris in their definition of solid waste and some do not. Estimates of the amount landfilled in this survey were in the range of 83.5 to 83.9 percent, while the amount claimed to be recycled was between 8.3 and 8.6 percent. Washington's claim of 29 percent recycled was the highest among the 50 states, yet even this figure is questionable since the survey was derived from private recyclers and brokers who included auto hulks in their estimates, dramatically inflating the total.

Finally, since all current estimates of per capita waste generation are based on a model of how materials flow through society rather than on direct observation of actual waste generation, all estimates of waste generation and recycling may be subject to significant statistical error. For example, if the approximately 12 million tons of steel recycled from old automobiles were added, the EPA/Franklin national estimates of American recycling would almost double. [15]

These marginal changes in disposal patterns and the degree of uncertainty which exists for estimates of both the weight and volume of municipal solid waste strongly imply that if one or more units of government are contemplating legislative action to mandate what must be done with waste throughout an area as narrow as even a single state, one important fact must be recognized: a solid waste stream – from beginning to end – is a product of market phenomena.

As market conditions change, the mix of materials in the waste stream and the most efficient method of disposing of that waste stream may change. Efforts to freeze any part of the stream by law, and to apply that law to all parts of a state, must assume that both waste disposal technology and consumer consumption patterns will remain constant throughout all regions of even a single state and, most importantly, that someone actually knows what the size of the waste stream is and what is and is not included in it.

Consequently, in the absence of absolutely certain knowledge of what a community's waste stream actually is government mandates aimed at dictating patterns of solid waste management may have the unintended consequence of arresting the development of emerging technologies which might be able to do a far better job of managing waste both today and in the future.

By necessity, attempting to manage the solid waste stream through mandates must be based on the assumption that what we know now about the nature of the stream and the best way to manage that stream is all we will ever know. In reality, exactly the opposite is true: what the waste stream is now and what it will be in the future cannot be known with the degree of certainty assumed in legal mandates. The dynamic character of markets is based on information discovery and information discovery tends to yield new and better technologies. Mandates lock us into old technologies. Markets create new technologies. In that respect, using market forces rather than legislative mandates to manage the solid waste stream holds the promise of far better prospects for economically and environmentally sound solid waste management.

Current wisdom argues that with approximately 85 percent of U.S. trash going to landfills; with more than half of the 18,500 landfills that existed in 1979 closed and half the remainder expected to close within the next ten years; and with growing political resistance to siting new landfills and incinerators, something drastic has to happen to change America's waste generation and disposal practices. That something has been proposed by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).