Dispatches from the Potomac#25 | U.S. Household Waste

This is a translation of an article originally written in May 2018 for publication in the July 2018 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

Mountains of Garbage

The amount of household waste generated in the U.S. in 2014 was 260 million tons; more than five times the 46 million tons generated in Japan. About half of the homes in the U.S. have garbage disposals (a device that shreds food waste so that it can be flushed down the drain), which means that there was actually even more waste produced. Of the 260 million tons of garbage, more than half (140 million tons) was sent to landfills. Thirty million tons were incinerated, and 90 million tons, about 1/3, were recycled or converted into fertilizer.

Americans Don't Sort their Trash

When I first came to the U.S. in 1999, I was surprised that there was no sorting required for the trash in my apartment building. There was a trash chute on each floor (connected to a collection area on the first floor), and everything (food waste, newspapers, plastic, cans, bottles, etc.) was thrown down this chute. Naturally, if a bottle was tossed into the chute from an upper floor, it shattered when it hit the bottom, but this was apparently fine. It feels wrong at first, but it is quite convenient once you get used to it. You can discard anything at any time, 24-hours a day. After becoming accustomed to this, the strict rules for separating and setting out the garbage in Japan seem quite irritating. On the first floor of the building where I live now there are large recycling boxes, and it is up to the residents to sort their trash. As far as I can see, there does not seem to be much effort put into the sorting process. There are fixed collection days for single family homes, and there seems to be some separation of recyclable materials, but the strictness of the sorting varies from place to place, and by the trash collector. Of course, it is not necessary to sort the trash into as many different categories as in Japan.

The number of hand dryers installed in public toilets in the U.S. is growing, but paper towels are still more common. Most people grab lots to dry their hands; some people even take another to avoid directly touching the door handle as they leave – they use the towel only to turn the knob and then toss it away. All of these towels eventually end up in the trash.

At places like Starbucks and food courts in the U.S. there are no containers to pour away leftover ice and beverages like there are in Japan. At most, there might be two different trash cans, one for recyclable items, and one for everything else. The leftover ice and liquids just get thrown into the trash with the cup. There are even people who pour coffee straight into the trash when they receive a cup that is a little over-filled. From a Japanese perspective, where individuals carefully sort their trash, this country seems “affluent” and “easy-going.”

Garbage Swept Away to Other Places

With the closure of a landfill in the suburbs, New York City proposed shipping a large portion of their garbage to neighboring states. In response to the opposition from these states, then-Mayor Giuliani (in 1999) said, “Every day three million people come from other areas to visit the cultural and business centers of New York, leaving behind large amounts of trash when they return home. Returning that trash to the local areas is a reciprocal relationship.” Governor Gilmore of Virginia, one of the states planned as a dump site for the garbage, sent a letter to Mayor Giuliani saying “I am offended.” I was living in Virginia at that time and I remember the indignation of a friend of mine toward Mayor Giuliani, saying “I cannot forgive his arrogance toward other areas, thinking that money talks.”

Although the wealthy residents in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and northern Virginia were indignant, local municipalities elsewhere in the state actually welcomed the plan to accept the garbage, anticipating revenue from the landfill operations. In the midst of the debate, Virginia tried to restrict the import of waste, but this was challenged as a violation of the constitutional rights (commercial clause) of waste disposal contractors, and was easily defeated.

Although the timing is a slightly different, based on 2016 data, the landfill cost in the Northeastern U.S., including New York, was 78 dollars/ton. The cost in the southeast, where Virginia is located, was about 40 dollars/ton. The garbage from New York City is transported by barge or rail to an outside area to be processed. This country seems to do everything according to economically-rational market principles.

Recycling & Export

The U.S. exports 30-40% of the waste that is recycled. In 2016, about 16 million tons went to China, but, this trend has been changing over the past year or so. Since the 1990s there have been efforts to promote recycling in order to reduce landfills, which impose a heavy burden on the environment. During this time, the percentage sent to China grew due to the lower labor costs and the ability to suppress transportation costs by carrying other goods on the ships when they return to the U.S. return trips of the ships. However, as the amount of recycled trash increased, the sorting did not keep pace, and the impurities increased dramatically. Considering safety, China established stricter criteria for the upper limits for impurities. Furthermore, this year, China completely banned the import of waste material, and the trading price for recycling dropped. In the industrial sector, recycling that is not economically rational is being abandoned, and the collected garbage is being sent to landfills.

Although there are regional differences exist, the rising cost of landfill disposal due to locational restrictions is undeniable, and we will soon be forced to come up with new ways to dispose of trash. Nevertheless, it is the United States that has been able to devise some strategies as this issue becomes more and more serious. It is my hope that the birth of some new business or market may result from the pursuit of a solution to this waste disposal problem.