A Trashed Economy Foretold

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009

Along with the stock market and the foreclosure rate, a less-heralded barometer has signaled the arrival of hard times: the landfill.

In an extravagantly wasteful society that typically puts 254 million tons of unwanted stuff at the curb to be thrown away each year, landfill managers say they knew something was amiss in the economy when they saw trash levels start steadily dropping last year. Now, some are reporting declines as sharp as 30 percent.

"The trash man is the first one to know about a recession because we see it first," said Richard S. Weber, manager of the Loudoun County landfill. "Circuit City's closing, so people aren't going there and buying those big boxes of stuff and throwing away all that Styrofoam and shrink-wrap . . . and whatever they were replacing."

Trash volume has dropped so much, Weber said, that instead of running out of space in 2012, as had been projected, the Loudoun landfill will gain a year and a half or so of use. "That's huge," he said.

In Prince William County, which has been particularly hard hit with foreclosures, the amount of discarded refrigerators, washers, dryers and other appliances that are usually sent to the landfill has fallen by 20 percent since the recession started. "People aren't buying new," said Tom Smith, solid waste program manager. "They're making do with what they have."

It's all part of the cycle of stuff that people in the trash business say they've seen in every economic downturn since the end of World War II. People don't buy stuff, so there's less packaging -- which typically makes up one-third of all landfill trash -- to toss. With a drop in demand, manufacturers make less, creating less waste. More vacant homes and fewer people in a community mean less trash. A stagnant housing market means less construction debris. On tight budgets, people eat out less, so restaurants order less, so there's less to throw away. Landscapers are out of work, so there's less yard debris.

At the Montgomery County transfer station, it wasn't unusual to see as many as 40 garbage trucks waiting in a line that snaked nearly a mile back to the entrance gate on Shady Grove Road to dump their loads. "Now, there's virtually no line," manager Peter Karasik said. "Ever."

Even in Virginia, which takes in more out-of-state garbage than any state save one, trash men began noticing declines in late 2007 of 10 to 20 percent. "And normally garbage is a pretty steady business because everybody wants to get rid of it," said Richard Doucette, a waste program manager with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Now, he said, some landfills are laying off workers.

Finally, said Ben Boxer, spokesman for Fairfax County's solid waste management program, the economy is forcing people to heed the environmentalists' mantra: Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! Repair! "A lot of these things that people throw away do have a valuable second life," he said, "especially for those who, now more than ever, are going to be facing difficult times."

In better times, Boxer has seen perfectly usable sofas crammed into dumpsters. But now, instead of ending up at the dump, stuff is being repaired and kept or traded on Web sites such as Freecycle.org, where as many as 70,000 people a week have been registering to swap stuff since the recession officially began in the fall.

Americans might not be saving string and rubber bands like their grandparents did during the Great Depression. But as the recession drags on, they are clearly rethinking the way they use their plentiful stuff.

These are the kinds of times that compel Paul Zehfuss to drive about 15 minutes from Springfield to Alexandria during his lunch hour to a new store that sells only batteries to get a little more life out of his electric toothbrush.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company