NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

We're Throwing Away Less Trash

November 22, 2002

If some musty records discovered in New York City' articless are to be believed, Americans are throwing away far less trash today than their grandparents did just prior to World War II.

Daniel C. Walsh, an adjunct professor at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, stumbled across 100 years of New York City trash collection records dating back to the late 1800s and analyzed them for a paper he published last week in Environmental Science and Technology magazine. His findings shatter a lot of myths about what and how much we throw away.

  • Trash per person peaked in 1940 at 2,068 pounds and then fell back to a century low of 712 pounds in the mid-1970s.
  • As of 1999, it stood at 928 pounds per person.
  • The golden age of recycling in New York City didn't begin in the save-the-earth 1970s and 1980s, but in the Gilded 1890s -- when mandatory curbside separation of trash was first imposed.
  • Today's "wasteful packaging" practices which environmentalists love to deplore is a myth, because the increase in packaging has been more than offset by the decrease in packaging weight.

In fact, the amount of trash per person in New York has barely budged in the last 20 years.

The use of coal to heat New Yorkers' homes declined from the 1920s through 1950. By that year, paper had replaced coal ash as the biggest category in the city's waste stream.

The scrap metal drives of World Wars I and II led to dramatic declines in trash collection. But mandatory recycling laws and the state's bottle and can redemption law in the 1980s made barely a dent in trash pickups.

Source: Kirk Johnson, "Finding Surprises in the Garbage," New York Times, November 22, 2002; Daniel C. Walsh, "Urban Residential Refuse Composition and Generation Rates for the 20th Century," Environmental Science and Technology, November 15, 2002.


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