The Paradox and the Promise of Source Reduction

as presented at

NYCDEP Environmental Education Conference, Vista Hotel, World Trade Center, New York, NY

September 9, 1989

Marjorie J. Clarke

Senior Fellow, INFORM


INTRODUCTION -- Garbage Generation Rates

At this time Americans generate about 160 million tons of garbage per year, and by the year 2000 this rate is predicted to rise to 193 million tons. The waste stream in the U.S is growing as the result of two factors: we are experiencing a growth rate of about 1-2% per person per year the amount of garbage that we are generating. This is over and above the growth rate just due to population; so when you add the increase in the population through births and immigration, that causes an additional component in the garbage growth rate in the U.S. This point is illustrated on a global basis by Figure 1 (Population and Wood Use - 1963, 1973, 1983), where the world's use of wood and paper products has been rising mainly due to population, but also due to increases in per capita use.

A comparison of the U.S. garbage generation rate to some other countries in the western world shows that U.S citizens create between 3 1/2 and 6 1/2 pounds per person per day whereas the number is closer to 2 pounds per day in West Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Japan. See Table I.

The consequences of this growth rate are just beginning to be felt in many parts of the country; and in the Northeast the situation is becoming acute in many places with landfills running out of capacity, and in other cases, such as Long Island with its sole source aquifer (i.e. groundwater-based drinking water supply), landfills being closed for environmental reasons. A dramatic example is Oyster Bay, Long Island which, in a recent year, has exported 100% of its waste at a total cost of $46 million dollars per year; the town spends only $42 million on everything else (police, fire, education, social services, etc...).


The Role of Source Reduction in Solid Waste Management

EPA and a number of states have, in the past year or two, devised an integrated solid waste management strategy. Source reduction and reuse, the potential solution to the problem of the per capita MSW generation increase, is at the top of this strategy. After this strategy is exhausted, recycling and composting come next, followed by incineration and ash management, and the last resort is landfilling. Table II illustrates the current situation in garbage management vis a vis the hierarchy, as well as the goals for each waste management alternative set by EPA for 1992 and for New York State by 1997. At present, 80% of U.S. MSW is landfilled, and source reduction is not practiced to any measurable degree. Though source reduction is at the top of the hierarchy, the source reduction goals for the U.S. and New York State are not particularly promising -- with nonspecific goal for the U.S. as a whole (and no national incentives or initiatives planned to encourage source reduction, as stated in EPA's Agenda for Action) and 8-10% for New York State.

In terms of the 10% New York State goal and other source reduction goals stated in simple percentages, it is not always clear whether included in the 10% figure is the 1-2% per year annual increase in the waste stream due to population and per capita increases. If there is a ten-year goal of 10% and the waste stream increases of 1% per year are allowed to continue for ten years, no source reduction would take place. So that there is no confusion on this issue, source reduction achievements for a geographic area should be measured against the quantity of waste generated at a particular time, say 1989. This means, of course, that to actually achieve source reduction, less garbage must be produced next year, and in subsequent years. In order to effect real source reduction, it is necessary to recognize that first, these 1-2% annual increases must cease and second, actual cuts must be made.


Figure 2 breaks down the solid waste stream in a way which is very useful in showing the promise of reducing the volume of garbage produced: volume source reduction. Durables (that is, consumer products which are designed and manufactured to have a long useful life, are easily maintained, repaired, and reused) make up about 12% of the waste stream; nondurables and throwaways contribute 26%; containers and packaging contribute about 33-34%, and yard waste and food waste, both of which are compostable, make up between 25 - 30%. The nondurables plus the containers and packaging segments, make up roughly 60% of the waste stream, and are considered the main targets for volume source reduction. Thus, in order to achieve actual source reduction, the MSW growth rate must be stopped, and then some of the nondurable products must be replaced in the marketplace with durable, repairable, maintainable, and reusable products and some of the excessive packaging must be replaced with packaging styles which use less material to contain the same quantity of product (e.g., bulk and concentrated packaging in single containers), use materials which have high recycled content, are themselves easily recyclable (single material packaging), and contain less toxic compounds (no heavy metals, chlorides, etc...). Table III illustrates the potential reduction in container materials to be saved by buying in bulk.

Table IV demonstrates the growth rate of each of the aforementioned waste categories. It is significant that the fastest growth rate from the 1970s to the year 2000 is not in packaging, but in the nondurable goods category. This being the case, nondurables would logically merit special attention.

o Some nondurables are consumer products which have a very short life span (e.g. single-use products) and are created to replace durable products for the sake of convenience: the product of today's throwaway society. Examples of these are disposable diapers, shavers, pens, plastic eating utensils and dishes, and even cameras! EPA figures that each year Americans throw away 1.6 billion disposable pens, 2 billion disposable razors, and 16 billion disposable diapers (all of which could be avoided by using their reusable/refillable durable counterparts). These take up quite a bit of room in a solid waste disposal system.

Disposable diapers, which, all by themselves make up to 3% of the waste stream, have a lifetime cost of over $4,000. The proposed flushable diaper has a life cycle cost of about $3,000. In terms of source reduction the cotton diaper which is reused is preferable to either the disposable or flushable diaper, has a life cycle cost of $227. This is illustrated in Table V. As the reusable diaper industry catches on to the environmental importance of its product, new developments should arrive to enhance the attractiveness of the product (e.g., velcro closures instead of pins, soft fabrics with wicking properties like some of the disposables use, and making the diaper more like an article of clothing by use of colors (vegetable-based, of course).

o Other nondurable items are added to the waste stream because they are either designed and manufactured to be shoddy (e.g., furniture with stapled rather than dovetailed joints and toys made of thin, fragile, breakable (but inexpensive) plastics rather than wood) or because they are not designed to be repaired or reconditioned very easily either by consumers or by repairmen (e.g., electronics, appliances, furniture). This is compounded by the fact that the repair industry itself is declining, perhaps due, in part, to the rapidly increasing diversity of product designs and the increasingly prevalent decisions by manufacturers not to make spare parts.

o Still other nondurables (e.g., computers, electronics) become obsolete or unfashionable in a short period of time due to evolution of technology, and others (e.g., clothing, automobiles) are designed from the start to become obsolete or unfashionable: planned obsolescence. Businesses have gotten into the habit of changing designs every year to maximize revenues and profits; and consumers in our generally affluent society have responded to advertising that new/fashionable items are most desirable by purchasing new products before the old ones wear out (or before attempting to repair them). The flaws in this logic are:

1. natural and mineral resources depletion -- the materials needed to manufacture limitless quantities of nondurables just for the sake of convenience or fashion are limited and/or in decline (e.g., petroleum --> plastics; trees/soil/space --> wood products/paper; and bauxite --> aluminum), and

2. environmental impacts -- the air, water, and land resources required to absorb the impacts of the mining and transportation of virgin materials, and disposal of mining residues as well as solid waste disposal (incineration, ash/garbage landfilling) are also limited and in decline.

3. needless investment of considerable amounts of human and economic resources as a result of mining and transporting the raw natural resources for these nondurables, as well as planning for and implementing solid waste solutions.


Packaging/containers and nondurables/throwaways are the two major targets of volume source reduction. In many places, especially in the East where landfill and incinerator capacities are typically at their limits, reducing the volume of solid waste to be recycled, incinerated, and/or landfilled is of paramount importance, since export is the only other option. In other localities where there is enough landfill/incinerator capacity for the near-term, toxic source reduction, or reducing the quantity of toxic elements in the waste stream, takes on greater importance, though it is a relevant issue everywhere.

Toxicity in the waste stream is a result of the presence of precursors, which are elements or compounds in waste items, which when they are incinerated become either emissions or ash, or which when they are landfilled contribute to leachate, possibly contaminating drinking water. Examples of precursors are heavy metals, chlorine, fluorine, sulfur, and nitrogen; these are found in batteries, pigments, leather, solder, cans (heavy metals), PVC plastics, bleached paper (chlorine), CFC-based polystyrenes (fluorine), tires (sulfur), and food and yard waste (nitrogen). Emissions produced by these precursors include acid gases (HCl, SO2, NOx, HF), chlorinated organics, such as dioxin, and heavy metal compounds. Precursors contained in consumer products are also responsible for heavy metal toxicity in incinerator ash residue and in leachate from landfills. Thus, it is clear that minimizing the use of precursors in consumer products via design changes (and maximizing recycling waste products containing precursors) would reduce the environmental effects of solid waste disposal by incineration and landfilling.

Table VI depicts data from the Swedish EPA which illustrates the percent distribution of each of a number of metals among a number of different categories of waste. For example, 26% of the cadmium in the solid waste stream is found in plastics, 10% of total mercury is found in plastics, 13% of the mercury goes into paper, and 18% of manganese goes into paper. Heavy metals content in plastics and paper is especially relevant in a discussion of source reduction because plastic and paper are two of the predominant materials used in nondurables and packaging. Conversely, reduction of packaging and nondurables in the waste stream would result in reduction of some heavy metals as well. Another way to reduce metals (or any precursor in the waste stream) is for industry to target them specifically and provide for research efforts to develop less toxic substitutes for metals in plastics (e.g., pigments, stabilizers) and other components of the waste stream.

New research accomplished by Franklin Associates for EPA this past year showed that after 80% recycling of lead acid car batteries (the current level), such batteries still make up 66% of the lead in the waste stream. Electronics are also quite high in lead because of the solder that is used. There is also a certain amount of leaded glass and ceramics and leaded plastics in the waste stream. (See Figure 3.)

Similarly for cadmium, after nickel/cadmium battery recycling, batteries still contribute 54% of the cadmium in the waste stream. The second major contributor of cadmium in the waste stream is plastics. Cadmium is also found in electronics, appliances, and pigments. (See Figure 4.)


INFORM's study of New York City's garbage management options from now to the year 2010 provides the basic framework for an economic cost comparison of the four aspects of the solid waste management hierarchy. At present, New York City landfills most of its garbage in one landfill on Staten Island -- the largest in the world. Taking a long-term view, however, landfilling within New York City will have to be reduced to zero for two reasons:

1. space at the Fresh Kills landfill is expected to be depleted within the first ten years of the new millennium unless the City achieves at least 40% recycling, 10% source reduction and builds at least two large incinerators.

2. the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has stipulated a goal for 1997 that landfilling will only be used for residues (recycling and ash) after that date.

Based on NYC Department of Sanitation figures from 1988, the cost in 2010 of exporting garbage from the City to other states has been found to be extremely expensive -- $237/ton in uninflated dollars. The cost of the incineration option is conservatively estimated to be $75/ton assuming no treatment of ash with disposal in Fresh Kills. Though initial costs of establishing a viable recycling program are high, the ongoing costs of recycling at a 15% rate is $35/ton. (This cost may increase with higher levels of recycling.) These figures only reflect the costs of disposal (i.e. planning and permitting, facility costs, marketing costs) and do not include the cost of collection, which is estimated to be on the order of $80 -$100 per ton, and must be added to the disposal costs.

At stark contrast, source reduction has no inherent disposal costs since there is nothing to dispose of. In addition there are no collection costs because there is nothing to collect. Figure 5 illustrates the differences in costs among the solid waste management alternatives. Recalling that nondurables and packaging constitute roughly 60% of the waste stream, it is probable that significant source reduction can be encouraged by the development and enactment of a number of feasible initiatives and programs, and at lower cost than planning and implementation of recycling ($135/ton), incineration/ash management ($175/ton), or export ($337/ton). *

* (The cost differential between recycling and incineration/ash and export is also indicative of a potential for subsidizing the development and stabilization of recycling markets at no additional net cost vs. incineration or export.)

In addition to the economic cost differential between source reduction, recycling and resource recovery there is a decided differential in environmental and natural resources depletion costs of source reduction vs. the other alternatives since less energy is consumed to make less packaging, and to make fewer durable rather than huge quantities of throwaway products. Even recycling has its energy costs even though other natural resources (aluminum and other metals, glass, paper, plastic, and other materials can be conserved/reused).


As alluded to above, source reduction does not involve collection or disposal of MSW, but to achieve reduction, other types of plans or programs are necessary. These can be categorized according to 1) minimizing the annual 1-2% per capita increase in solid waste, and 2) making actual cuts in today's nondurables and packaging.

One way to accomplish the former is for industry and consumers of packaging and nondurables to establish a policy of not manufacturing or purchasing any new types of nondurable, displacing durable products, or any new product design employing excessive packaging, where less packaging previously sufficed. (Particularly egregious examples of a gratuitous nondurable and an excessive package recently leashed on the public have been the disposable camera and the fast-food double-container with sections for the single hamburger separated from the lettuce and tomato.)

Long-term cuts in today's waste stream can be accomplished in two ways: 1) by looking back in time, to devise ways by which society could go back to living without throwaways and overly packaged goods without sacrificing convenience, and 2) by considering population management, since more people make more waste. A few examples of the former include return (by the consumer) to use of washable diapers (new fabrics and designs (e.g. velcro fasteners) could improve on the old designs), purchase of bulk goods at food co-ops, bringing one's own reusable bag (and other containers) for shopping, provision of incentives for retaining the dwindling number of repair shops, thrift shops, and other means of enhancing the useful life of products. Getting industry educated and motivated, perhaps through legislative and/or economic means, through awards to make less toxic more durable products would aid in this regard.

Since today's waste stream is 26% nondurables and 33% packaging/containers, these would be the logical target categories for source reduction efforts. These target figures will not be reduced to zero, since some nondurables are items such as newspapers which are recyclable (though on reflection, the future may auger for the obsolescence of newspapers with the advent of electronic media and computer newspapers). However, there are many nondurables manufactured today which could be replaced by far fewer durables (pens, diapers, razors).

For purposes of implementation of source reduction, the strategies enumerated above, which minimize increased generation rates and commence actual source reduction, can be considered to lie in three major categories: government legislation, regulation, and programs, industry research and development, and public/school educational programs. Though each one alone could achieve a certain amount of source reduction, employment of all three sectors in the implementation of source reduction solutions would most likely result in the greatest reductions.

First, government programs can be established to hire professionals to research the efficacy of, create, and enforce legislation and regulations tailored to reduce or discourage the amount of nondurables and overly packaged goods from being produced, purchased by retailers, and purchased by consumers. Governmental initiatives can take the form of product bans, taxes, tax credits, loans, grant awards, government contracts, and government programs. Government can also institute procurement programs which provide a premium for more durable, longer-lasting products or products which decrease the creation of waste (an example of this is double-sided photocopiers). Government regulations could also prohibit purchase of a disposable item where previously durables ones were purchased. Governments can set standards for durability and repairability of consumer goods. Government-sponsored competitions and award programs could encourage the development of superior durable products and packaging.

Specific economic incentives, such as tax credits to manufacturers, distributors, and retailers for minimizing design, use, purchase, and sale of products packaged in certain ways as well as certain nondurables (in short to encourage better product and packaging decisions), could be structured into an overall budget package with taxes on poorly designed packaging and disposable items. Fast food outlets which choose to utilize throwaway dishes, utensils, condiments could be targeted for disincentives or penalties -- and/or incentives to change back to washable plates, etc.... Thrift and repair shops and vocational schools which train repairmen, all of which are on the wane, but all of which promote product longevity, could be targets for subsidies.

Some government initiatives, such as those enumerated above, have been instituted in a number of localities across the country (and in other countries). To minimize "reinventing the wheel", government solid waste planners would be well advised to establish and utilize information clearinghouses, as many lessons can be learned from the experiences of others.

Second, there has been limited research and development into reducing the size of packaging, and increasing the durability of products. Designers and manufacturers of consumer products and packaging are responsible for the development and proliferation of an increasing variety of disposables and increasing quantity of packaging. These industries could be encouraged by government and educated consumers (and peer pressure) to undertake research and development on more environmentally sensitive product and packaging designs. Such research and development could involve a search for non-toxic substitutes for precursors (e.g. heavy metals which are used as pigments and stabilizers in plastics and paper, chlorides in plastics) and redesigning products and packaging to have less volume. Such research can also be undertaken by government, at EPA labs or under the auspices of EPA and NSF research grants, and perhaps to some degree on the state level as well.

Much of this suggested R&D effort is also dependent on corporate decision-making. For example, a company's decision to develop product lines of disposables or products with excessive packaging, can diminish the value of a research program instituted to develop better alternatives. To be consistent, industry might have to alter its traditional decision-making objectives to prioritize both increased research and development of more durable consumer products which are easily repaired, refilled, and reused, and design of more compact packaging made of more environmentally sound materials along with prioritization of marketing such durables. Some retail chains (notably Loblaws and also Roots in Canada) have made a corporate decision to market a line of environmentally-friendly products.

Third, consumer education is key to effecting source reduction. All the changes in product and packaging design would mean nothing if consumers ignored them in the marketplace and did not strive to maintain and repair durable products in the home. (This concept of public education in source reduction also applies to retailers since they have a large role in determining the product choices available to consumers.) Changes in product labelling and advertising by businesses to steer consumers not towards the disposable, fashionable, items but towards the durable, reusable, classics would also certainly help to optimize the choices consumers make and to maximize the source reduction that they themselves can achieve.

Consumer education has to begin early for children to grasp fully the magnitude and the choices involved in the solid waste problem, as well as to understand their contribution both to the many kinds of pollution resulting from solid waste disposal and to the ongoing depletion of natural resources. Though it is a touchy subject, people must be made aware of the connection between their actions in terms of resources consumption and population management and the mid- and long-range environmental consequences. As part of a school's curriculum, children must be taught how to think and how to evaluate in addition to learning about the solid waste alternatives themselves. An integral part of a successful public education program would, thus, emphasize the many ways in which individuals can evaluate the environmental merits of their purchases in the marketplace and their behavior towards consumer products they already own (i.e., how quickly will an item be thrown away vs. repaired or brought to a thrift shop?).

Governments could aid in this effort by providing funds for the public and school educational programs which are so vital in getting people to understand their roles in and options for achieving reductions in waste generation rates. One of the features of such an educational program would be to help direct consumer purchases of more durables, fewer disposables, less packaging and less toxic alternatives.

Figure 6 is an example of a "buying trash" shopping checklist. These are just a few examples of what choices people can make by asking oneself questions while shopping. Can I reuse this container for something else? Can I buy this product in a larger container or in bulk quantity? Can I buy this product, such as a razor, a cup, a utensil, a diaper, in a non-disposable longer-lasting form? Can I buy this fast food in paper rather than plastic or styrofoam? Is this product worth a higher garbage bill or polluted environment? If people were to become educated regarding the environmental impacts of their actions and were to ask themselves such questions as those on Figure 6 while shopping, and if industry were to cooperate by providing durable, less packaged alternatives with appropriate labelling of ingredients, the necessary result would be reduced volume and toxicity of the solid waste stream.

Few studies have been completed attempting to demonstrate the effectiveness of a source reduction education program in reducing the amount of solid waste generated. One such study was done in West Berlin in 1983. To test how much reduction is possible with educated volunteers, about 100 families volunteers were asked to separate their garbage into newspapers, junk mail, glass, metal, plastics and a few other categories over two sixteen-week periods separated by a year. To establish a base generation rate, the volunteers were not educated in source reduction until after six weeks had passed. The results of this study are presented in Table VII. At the end of the first 16-week trial period the amount of source reduction achieved was 16%. This level held for the rest of the year, and at the beginning of the second year, another 16 weeks of separation and measurement commenced. At the end of the second 16-week trial there was a net 21% reduction in the amount of garbage that was generated by these volunteer families. This kind of research is sorely lacking and would undoubtedly aid in the design of an optimal source reduction education program. Further studies modelled on this experiment, but altered slightly to ascertain the effects of not using volunteers, or of training the subjects differently, or for longer/shorter periods could be conducted in schools or in neighborhoods as part of academic or government programs.


Source reduction is clearly the preferred choice for natural resources and solid waste management, and is at the top of the EPA and New York State hierarchy for solid waste management, having the lowest environmental impacts and probably the lowest economic costs since there are no collection and facility costs involved. One would expect that the highest goals and at least an equivalent commitment of economic and human resources would be accorded this alternative.

Unfortunately, the converse is true. Source reduction has the smallest goals relative to incineration/ash and recycling/composting, with only 8-10% in New York State after ten years (this being one of the highest goals specifically stated in a government plan). Source reduction also receives the lowest funding for research and development in government and industry, and the lowest funding for program implementation and planning for designing, evaluating, implementing and enforcing legislative initiatives and economic incentives to source reduction. Thus, it seems incumbent upon government solid waste management authorities that to be really serious about achieving source reduction, the above situation has to be reversed, with more ambitious goals and a commitment of greater levels funding for research, development of government initiatives, and educational programs.