1998 State of Nation's Waste

is the recycling of all materials back into nature or the marketplace in a manner that protects human health and the environment.


* PRESS RELEASE: May 5, 1998

CONTACT: Lynn Landes, Zero Waste America
LynnLandes@earthlink.net / www.ZeroWasteAmerica.org 




Every year Americans are producing more waste per capita, as recycling efforts struggle to offset the impact of population growth at more than 2 million persons annually, reports Zero Waste America (ZWA), an Internet-based environmental organization, in its 1998 State of the Nation’s Waste report.

In 1997, Americans generated 340 million tons of municipal waste, which averaged 1.272 tons per person. The recycling rate was 30%, for a total amount of 238 million tons, or 0.890 tons of waste disposed per person. By comparison, in 1990, Americans generated 269 million tons at an average of 1.089 tons per person, recycled 8%, for a total disposal of 247 million tons, or 1.002 tons per person.

This is not good news. Municipal waste is only a fraction, perhaps less than 20%, of the total waste stream.

"The U.S. is sinking under an endless avalanche of waste, with no credible plan of action in sight," says Lynn Landes, founder of ZWA. "The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a legal obligation under the Solid Waste Disposal Act (or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act-RCRA) to require that states maximize waste reduction and recycling. Federal law also requires that states provide Solid Waste Management Plans. Instead, states have a patchwork of programs with loopholes large enough to drive a trash truck through," adds Landes.

ZWA created an innovative formula to judge a state's municipal waste management performance. Based on the principal that states can and should manage their own waste, ZWA's performance formula penalizes states who import or export waste. ZWA identifies four strategies states can employ to eliminate waste disposal, imports, and exports: 1) implement waste disposal bans, 2) support markets for recyclables, 3) restrict land use, and 4) raise state taxes on the amount of waste disposed.

South Dakota won first place as the nation's "Best" at managing their municipal waste for 1997, while Nevada won the "Worst" place position. New York was the leading exporter of waste at 4.0 million tons, Pennsylvania imported the most waste, at 6.3 million tons, and California was the leading generator of waste, at 45.0 million tons. Washington recycled the most waste, at 48% of their municipal waste stream.

ZWA based a state's waste management on the amount of municipal waste a state generates, minus the percentage recycled, plus waste imports and exports,, divided by their population. ZWA used data provided by a leading industry publication, Biocycle, the Congressional Research Service, Franklin Associates, and the U.S. Census Bureau. Biocycle points out that the waste data reporting is not an exact science, which may be significantly understating the situation. EPA has appeared reluctant to require comprehensive reporting by the states.

Since 1990, 2.2 billions tons of municipal waste has been disposed. Using a ratio based on information provided by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, ZWA estimates that 20% of all waste is considered municipal, and can be disposed into municipal landfills. The other 80% of the waste stream includes a combination of hazardous, industrial, infectious, and other wastes that are disposed in non-municipal, commercial, or private facilities.

Based on the 5/1 ratio, ZWA estimates that since 1990, more than 11 billion tons of domestic and foreign waste have been disposed in the U.S.. This is equal to covering every acre in the nation with 4.7 tons of waste. Relying on EPA's Franklin Associates, which calculates price per ton of municipal waste disposal at a conservative $100/ton, ZWA estimates the total cost to consumers of all waste disposed in the U.S. since 1990, is in excess of $1.1 trillion.

NOTE: See ZWA's Waste Data for an update on the estimates in the above two paragraphs.

Several states, particularly Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan are being swamped with domestic and foreign waste imports. They are lobbying Congress for passage of federal interstate waste legislation. They claim that without this legislation, their hands are tied. Landes disagrees. For several years, ZWA's Landes has been a vocal critic of the Interstate legislation, claiming that it would have little real effect. She points out that the legislation only applies to "unwanted" municipal waste. Disadvantaged communities would continue to be compelled to accept waste facilities through economic incentives.

ZWA promotes "disposal bans" as the most effective way for states to control waste imports. A disposal ban prohibits designated types of waste from entering landfills and incinerators. This method of controlling waste was recommended by the Federal Court of Appeal, 7th Circuit (Aug 1995) in National Solid Waste Association v. Meyer (representing Wisconsin), when it ruled that "{a state} could realize its goals of ...protecting the environment by mandating that all waste entering the state, first be treated at a...facility...to "remove designated wastes." The more types of waste that are banned for disposal, the fewer types of waste can be imported.

ZWA used data provided by a leading industry publication, Biocycle, the Congressional Research Service, Franklin Associates, and the U.S. Census Bureau. 

ZWA also announced the winners of its 1998 ZWA Achievement Awards for Government Efforts to Eliminate Waste. The winners were Canberra, Australia for its "No Waste by 2010" program; Nova Scotia, Canada, for its disposal ban of all organics in waste disposal facilities by November 1998; and National Renewable Energy Laboratory, USA, for development of a one-step device that uses solar power to convert water into a hydrogen fuel. A special "Home Town" Zero Waste Achievement award went to Cleveland Heights, Ohio for its 1996 ordinance that banned the use of synthetic pesticides in public parks and buildings.