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Pursuing Sustainable Solid Waste Management


July 2002








This Article discusses the original goals of Agenda 211 related to achieving "environmentally sound" solid waste management and reviews U.S. activities and policies with regard to solid waste over the last decade. Of greatest interest to the public and the media has been municipal solid waste (MSW)—ordinary household, commercial and institutional garbage or trash. Overall, the record of the United States in achieving sustainable solid waste management, including steady state or decreasing levels of waste generation and disposal, is mixed. On one hand, recycling and composting rates have increased dramatically and the portion of the U.S. population with access to curbside recycling has doubled to over 140 million people, helping to decrease the percentage of MSW that is landfilled. On the other hand, percentages tell only part of the story and mask some unsustainable trends: recent increases in per capita generation and landfill dependence.

The need for consistent data and indicators for solid waste management is highlighted here. Although one might expect quantification in this area, vastly disparate estimates of waste generation are confounding and suggest considerable discrepancies and room for improvement. In the late 1980s, when a disposal crisis seemed imminent, there was tremendous enthusiasm for reduction in waste generation and disposal. Most of today's solid waste policy, including the solid waste management hierarchy, stems from that era. While the ideas are sound, programs and practices clearly need revitalization. The United States must be prepared to address its growing complacency with regard to easy, but unsustainable, waste management "solutions."