It was a warm spring day, so I thought I’d take a leisurely stroll through EPA’s garbage files. The agency pulls together numbers on the Municipal Solid Waste stream (MSW), the non-industrial part of what we throw out.

EPA tabulated statistics from local governments for our garbage productivity in 1960. Nationally, we tossed 88,100,000 tons of trash that year: 2.68 pounds per day per person. Since then, we’ve seen the dawning of an environmental movement and widespread acceptance of recycling and re-use as a means of keeping the landfills from overflowing. Two full generations of more environmentally aware Americans have gotten the word.

We’ve tripled our garbage output since then. Even accounting for nationwide population gains, we’re throwing out nearly twice as much per person as we did when Kennedy became president. By 1994, we’d risen to 209 million tons of MSW per year, and 4.4 pounds per capita. By 2006, the last full year available from EPA, the pace of growth had slowed, but it still gives the lie to the belief that Americans “get it,” and are behaving in environmentally responsible ways. Our throwaways in 2006 had grown to 251.3 million tons -- 4.6 pounds per day, per person. We’re closing in on throwing away a ton of stuff a year, each and every one of us. (Note that there’s a good chance this number could drop by the time 2008 stats are in. A bad economy means less production, and therefore less garbage).

Garbage science isn’t rocket science, folks. Something else we’ve picked up since 1960, in addition to a deepened environmental ethic, is a wholesale oblivion to the meaning of the environmental ethic we’ve picked up. Convenience items abound: Disposable diapers, cans, bottles, milk jugs, cameras, reams of paper, fast food packaging and more. Stronger stuff, particularly the toxic components in the flat screens, iPods, digital cameras, Blackberrys, cell phones and computers that didn’t exist in 1960. And much, much more.

The electronics stuff is a particular setback. Our TVs, computer monitors and the rest are chock full of heavy metals and carcinogens -- mercury, cadmium and lead among them. For the most part, they’re shipped to places like China or Nigeria, where they’re stripped down by hand in god-awful conditions in communities that have become economic sacrifice zones. The life-threatening work in these towns is likely the only hope of any work, or family income, there is. I wrote a few months ago on a 60 Minutes expose in Guiyu, southern China. 60 Minutes followed the work of a great nonprofit group, the Basel Action Network, which has followed the e-waste trade worldwide. The U.S. Justice Department followed 60 Minutes and raided a Colorado recycling company that promised to handle waste responsibly, then allegedly shipped it to China. To date, Executive Recycling is still in business, denies the 60 Minutes allegations, and still hasn’t been charged. (Another note here: Anything that’s handled as “toxic” waste is not counted in EPA’s Municipal Solid Waste stream.)

One thing that is rising is the rate of recycling of household waste: Up from 6.4% in 1960, to 16.2% in 1990, to 33.4% in 2007. The amount of Municipal Solid Waste we recycled in 2007 almost matched the total amount we made in 1960. That has undoubtedly kept a lot of landfills from expanding, or new ones from opening up. But it’s also not nearly enough to stem the tide of garbage.

Four things prevent more thorough recycling:

1) Many local governments don’t provide the means to make it happen. In Rockdale County, Georgia where I live, it’s a nearly six mile drive to the recycling drop-off.

2) We’re still manufacturing copious amounts of packaging:  Gaudy packages for marketing reasons, oversized packages to prevent shoplifting, etc.

3) A huge number of Americans still don’t get it. I took my kids to a local restaurant a few weeks ago and the waitress lobbed such a huge stack of napkins at us that I checked to make sure someone hadn’t started bleeding.

4) The business of recycling is incredibly volatile: Paper, glass, aluminum, and plastic recyclers have been hit as hard, maybe harder, than the rest of the world by the economic downturn. If we’re producing less, there’s less demand for recycled products. And that’s a Catch-22, because if the economy is booming, guess what?  We’re making more garbage.

There was a reality TV show a few years back in which a 21st century family tried to spend a year living like a pioneer family. I never watched it, as I tend to never watch anything that purports to represent “reality” and “TV” at the same time. But I might enjoy being a fly on the wall if we could take a typical 21st century family with kids and watch them cope with 1960: Rinse out the soda and milk bottles; clean the cloth diapers, and just less stuff overall. One telephone line, attached to a cord, and one black-and-white TV with three channels (or less). Nothing would be as short-lived, whether it’s doing the dishes or having an attention span.

It would by no means be an environmental nirvana: In all likelihood, Dad would smoke like a chimney, and so would the one family car (today’s family would have cleaner cars, but probably closer to one per person than one per family). And of course, they might get their hands on the spray can of DDT and go after the fly that’s on the wall.

I wouldn’t want to go back to the 1960s myself, any more than I’d want to be typing this on a Smith-Corona manual for MNN, the Mother Nature Newsletter. But maybe there’s a happy medium where we can live well without cursing the land we live on, and maybe we can remind ourselves that on some environmental fronts, we’re headed in the wrong direction. It’s hard to look hopefully on reversing climate change, saving species, protecting habitat, or getting cleaner air and water when we can’t even stop making more and more garbage.


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.) 

Political Habitat: A heap of trouble
Garbage science isn't rocket science. Each of us throws away a ton of stuff every year. Literally. The problem, and why it's only getting worse.