Americans are generating garbage in record amounts, but more of it is being recycled or incinerated and substantially less is going into landfills, according to a new study by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Since 1960, the amount of waste generated has nearly doubled to 180 million tons annually, according to figures contained in a soon-to-be-released study of the country's solid waste.
But the amount of waste being recycled also has nearly doubled. Americans now recycle or compost some 13 percent of their garbage compared with 7 percent in 1960. That, combined with a higher percentage of incineration, has reduced the amount of garbage going into the nation's landfills, according to William E. Franklin of Franklin Associates Ltd., the environmental consulting firm that prepared the analysis.
"The use of landfills in the United States has peaked," Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council said of the apparent turnaround.
"The one area on which everyone agrees is the worst way to deal with garbage is to mix it and dump it in the ground. In Japan, less than 15 percent of all garbage is landfilled," he said. "We've finally begun to recognize that burying resources in the ground is just bad public policy."
While recycling was increasing, incineration also was making a comeback. In 1960, Americans burned 30 percent of their garbage. Incineration fell out of favor in the 1960s and 1970s because of concerns about harmful emissions from burning trash, dropping to about 10 percent of disposal in 1980. Now cleaner incinerators burn about 14 percent of the nation's waste.
Landfill fortunes waxed and waned in counterpoint to those trends, the report noted. In 1960, 62 percent of waste was landfilled; 20 years later the figure had climbed to 81 percent. By 1988, it declined to 73 percent, apparently for the first time since waste disposal methods had been tracked.
"That doesn't mean that landfills won't continue to fill up," said Marjorie Franklin, president of Franklin Associates. "It doesn't mean there won't be a continuing landfill crisis."
An increasing emphasis on recycling, better incineration methods and a growing scarcity of landfill sites have combined to bring about the trend. Of the waste that is still being thrown away, an increasing amount of it is plastic.
According to the study, the amount of plastic thrown away has increased by 23 percent, so that it now constitutes 8 percent of solid waste as measured by weight.
Because so little of it is recycled, however, it accounts for about 20 percent of the waste in landfills, measured by volume.
Only about 1 percent of plastic waste is recycled now, although the industry is moving rapidly to recycle more, according to Donald Shea, executive vice president of the Council on Solid Waste Solutions, a plastics industry group. "We have to recycle faster," he said.
Paper and paperboard remain far and away the largest contributors to waste and make up the biggest component of landfills.