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Monday, March 16, 2009

Recession Notes: Less Trash, More Tents

Another bright side to the recession: less trash! According to Saturday's Washington Post, landfill operators can tell folks are buying less stuff, hanging on to their stuff longer, and replacing their stuff with more used stuff:

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 [Brigid Schulte, "A Trashed Economy Foretold," Washington Post, 2009.03.14].

Some landfills report 30% declines in incoming trash, which is extending the usuable lifespan of those landfills. Who says a recession is so bad?

But before I can launch all bright-sidey into my Monday, I have to notice the few hundred fellow Americans living in tents in Sacramento, Phoenix, Portland, and elsewhere. No, the recession hasn't encouraged Americans to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. It's leaving working Americans with no better housing option than tents and tarps:

Take, for example, 53-year-old Dave Cutch. His clothes suggest a suburban hiker, except that he stands in a muddy patch outside a tent that he's called home for the past two months. A year ago, he was a welder in Colorado.

"So the company I'm working for, I get laid off," Cutch says. "I qualified for unemployment — 24 weeks. My car's paid off, my truck's paid off, my bike's paid off, everything except for my house payment, right? But I feel like I'm still going to pull out of it."

Months went by without work. Cutch lost his house, his car was stolen, his savings ran out. This past August, he took up a friend's invitation to come to California, but that didn't work out, either.

"Trying to get back on my feet, you know," Cutch says. "Daily, I still go out looking for a job. But the thing I'm running into is when I put the application in they ask me, 'Where do you live at?' And I go, 'Actually, I don't have a place to live. I'm homeless.' That's it. They don't hire me" [Richard Gonzales, "Sacramento Tent City Reflects Economy's Troubles," NPR Morning Edition, 2009.03.16].

I'll bet the $165 million of bailout money AIG is spending on executive bonuses could create a lot of honest work for the folks in Sacramento's tent city.


  1. CAH:

    I really don't think that a decrease in consumption due to the economy can be positively spun. That literally is the slowing of our economy.

    Conversely, if consumption was up but landfill waste due to recycling I would be excited.

  2. I will say that we began aggressively recycling plastic, paper and glass in July. We were pretty lazy about recycling prior to that. I can't say it was the slowing economy, but it just felt like the right thing to do at the time. We plan to continue recycling and are putting out two full bags of plastics and one half bag of paper every two weeks, where we did almost nothing before. If we all do it, there would be huge impact, but maybe I'm the last guy in town to recycle.

  3. I'm in the country and it's much easier to burn and toss in our own landfill than recycle. But, that being said, I would be willing to recycle too if it was more readily available or advertised, I would recycle too. Where is the place in Madison? What are its hours? What does it take for recyclables?

  4. Anon 12:42,

    I'm very glad you'd like to recycle. Burning garbage is INCREDIBLY toxic (you've reminded me I should probably start lobbying the county to ban outdoor garbage burning, at least within a certain distance from homes). "U.S. EPA research shows that burn barrels are the #1 source of dioxin in the U.S. Just one burn barrel can produce as much or more than a full-scale municipal waste combustor burning 200 tons/day." (link and more info here)

    I cringe every time I venture outdoors only to smell a neighbor's garbage burning, especially with my three-year-old daughter, knowing what kind of crap we're breathing in.

    We take our recycling in to the Madison recycling center located at 800 SW 7th St. Hours are Tue.-Fri. 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. Info at this link. Look at the bottom of the page for a link to a PDF on what they take and how to sort items for recycling.

  5. Recycling's open during the week?! I thought drop-off was only on Saturday. Heck! I'm going during the week.

  6. Tony, I'm still inclined to see a bright side to a decrease in consumption, at least of physical goods. Can we kick the economy back into gear and get folks working again strictly through services without increasing the use of natural resources?

  7. Cory, I'm with you on this one. Endless growth is not sustainable. Thanks for continuing to put some positive spin on this recession. Every difficulty presents multiple opportunities.

    That said, I'm sorry to see tent cities spring up. I've been lucky so far in this downturn, and I count my blessings every day.

  8. Indeed, Stan—even the hardest-working man has to look up every now and then and say, "There but for the grace of God/Allah/Brownian motion go I."

  9. CAH @ 3:06

    Conceptually yes. Generally the US over the last 20-30 years has done that exactly. We use to have many factory workers producing goods but these workers were replaced by automation. We as a nation produce the same amount while using less of our labor to do so. This excess labor force has shifted into service type positions.

    The challenge today though is that now automation is replacing these service positions at an alarming pace. ATM/the net/etc. are all eliminating the need for these jobs.

    I tend to think that the next shift will be to design/high quality products/entertainment from service. I think focusing back on niche markets (high quality, locally grown food), next gen health care, and artistic works will be the clear leaders.

  10. ERin, thanks for the info on recycling. But please don't bother me and my burn barrel. I hvae a hard time believing that the little bit we burn is the same as your comparison. I don't want to hurt the envirnoment either, but there is a limit. And my smoke doesn't bother any one out here in the boonies. People have burned trash for centuries, and we are still here!

  11. Trash with its carcinogens is one thing, burning lumber, branches and natural items is another. Has EPA ever tested what comes out of T&R Electric's smoke stack each evening. Sometimes it is so strong it actually burns the lungs when you drive by it. Somebody ought to test it and make sure they're not burning PCB oil from the transformers they recycle.

  12. You're right, Anon. People have burned trash for centuries. Trash has changed in recent years, though. "Until a few decades ago, burning garbage in the backyard was much less dangerous to your health. Fifty years ago, most household garbage contained only untreated paper, wood, and glass. Today’s garbage contains paper, plastics, and other types of packaging waste that release a hazardous mixture of carcinogens
    and other toxics (such as lead, mercury, and arsenic) when burned. Even seemingly harmless items, like paper, mail, packaging, and cardboard boxes used for frozen pizzas and vegetables,can give off toxic emissions."

    That information is from a burn barrel fact sheet put out by the MN Pollution Control Agency. I highly recommend reading it to anyone who doubts that burn barrels contribute to dangerous levels of pollution (yes, even your single barrel is dangerous). They do. It's a fact, not my personal opinion. I didn't make up the stats.

    More EPA info


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