We are what we measure.   It's time to measure what we want to be.

Total waste generated

Total waste generated

This indicator from the Sustainable Community Roundtable of the South Puget Sound region in the state of Washington looks at the amount of solid waste sent to the landfill. It estimates the total of all residential, commercial, industrial and recycled waste. Sustainability is about using resources no faster than they can be renewed and generating wastes no faster than they can be assimilated. The number of tons of solid waste produced relates to both these issues.

Overview of the issue
Resource consumption and waste production are concerns for every community interested in sustainability for three reasons:
  • Natural resources are the raw materials used to create manufactured goods required by the community;
  • Land used for disposing of waste material is a limited natural resource; and
  • The local environmental has a limited capacity to handle air and water pollution created by waste disposal.

In Thurston County, both total waste and recycled waste have been tracked. Despite a vigorous recycling program, the total waste generated annually has increased steadily, from about 77,000 tons landfilled in 1983 to about 130,000 tons landfilled in 1997, a 70% increase in 15 years. In part this increase is due to increased number of people living in the area but each person is also creating more waste, even though people are recycling more.

Indicator Evaluation
This indicator was chosen because it gets to the heart of sustainability in a very practical, measurable way. It is important to note that this indicator scores higher than a simple measure of the "number of people who recycle" because, as seen by Thurston County's experience, increasing the recycling rate does not solve the problem since it ignores issues of consumption.

Carrying capacity of the community capital
Natural capital - Because the waste that is generated was created initially from the community's natural resource base (local or distant), this indicator is a measure of natural resource use. It is also partly a measure of the ecosystem services that the natural capital provides because there is a limit to the amount of waste that the environment can process without being degraded.

Social capital - although not a direct measure of the community's social capital, the indicator does reflect how well the community understands the need to reduce waste generation and resource consumption. It also reflects the skills or lack of skills in the community to develop ways to reduce waste generation or recycle material.

Built/financial capital - Much of what is thrown away is built capital so this indicator measures the built capital as well.

Linkages - The areas of community addressed by this indicator include cultural/social, economy, energy, environment, health, land use, population and resource use.

Long term view - This indicator can be used to show how much solid waste could be generated in the future if the current consumption patterns don't change.

Understandable - This is a very simple measure that is understood even by young children. It also appears to be having an effect on people's behaviors: 83% of Thurston County residents and 95% of Olympia residents participate in recycling. The significance of the indicator may not be fully recognized, however: the total amount of waste generated per person has not changed significantly since 1985. As might be expected, consumption habits are harder to change than waste disposal habits, although a number of steps have been taken at the county level to reduce consumption and waste including:

  • a cooperative county plan aiming to limit waste to 60% of the amount generated in 1992
  • encouraging new and expanded secondary materials manufacturing businesses
  • encouraging recycling efforts by individuals and businesses (St. Peter's Hospital has reduced its waste stream by 30-40%)
  • encouraging composting
  • encouraging consumers buy products in bulk and bring their own containers and bags

Ways the Indicator Has Prompted Change
Dorothy Craig, project coordinator, explains that while most of the general public may not be interested in looking at a graph, the mere fact that consumption and waste production are being measured, discussed and linked to long term quality of life issues has been a powerful educational tool. In addition, the indicator has been used by the Sustainable Community Roundtable to calculate a suggested goal of 5 pounds or less of residential trash per person per week. This goal could be modified as necessary and other types of goals could be established.

How to Improve the Indicator
One way to improve the indicator would be to show how the amount of waste being produced compares to the amount of space remaining in the landfill with projected data showing when the landfill would have to be closed. It could also be useful to show the amount of energy being spent on transporting the waste and the resulting air pollution from the transport and from the landfill operation itself. If any of the waste were being incinerated, the amount of ash being generated and needing to be landfilled would also be instructive.

Data Sources and Additional Information
This indicator was selected from the Sustainable Community Roundtable's 1995 State of the Community Report. Their web site, http://www.oly-wa.us/SustainSouthSound/, includes a worksheet for calculating an individual's daily solid waste production rate and suggestions for reducing that number. Our thanks to Dorothy Craig for providing input to this Indicator Spotlight.

The sources for the data include the Thurston County Solid Waste Program and the City of Olympia Department of Public Works.

Some of the many good sources of information on making a better life while minimizing consumption and waste include:

  • Affluenza (http://www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza/) is a one-hour television special that explores the high social and environmental costs of materialism and overconsumption. It was produced by KCTS/Seattle and Oregon Public Broadcasting and has been broadcast nationally on PBS stations. The sequel, Escape from Affluenza, profiles people and organizations that are reducing consumption and waste and working to live in better balance with the environment. Information about both of these is available on the PBS web site.
  • Center for a New American Dream (http://www.newdream.org) has a kit, Yearning for Balance, with information on reducing and shifting consumption while enhancing quality of life and protecting the environment.
  • The Simple Living Network (http://www.slnet.com/) is an excellent source of further links to information on resisting our tendency to be wasteful.

We are very interested in including comments from reviewers that add to the general discussion of measuring sustainability. As we receive appropriate comments, we will add them here. If you have comments about a particular indicator that you would like to include, please send us a message. Likewise, if your community or organization has an indicator that you think would be a good indicator to spotlight, please let us know.

These comments are from Jason Venetoulis; Jason can be contacted at venetouj@cyberg8t.com:
Jason: I like the recycling targets, but what about setting consumption targets? I.e., 35% of new products purchased by city come from recycled materiel, and my favorite: 25% less waste generated per capita by 2000. Also, since, Olympia is working on Footprinting, maybe they could include a section on the "Wasted Footprint".
Dr. Indicator: I understand the concept of Ecological Footprint. (For those who are not familiar with it, the ecological footprint of a population is the amount of biologically productive land and water area used to produce the resources consumed and to assimilate the wastes generated by that population, using existing technology. In other words, it measures human demand on the bio-capacity of the Earth.) Jason, could you elaborate on what you mean by a "wasted footprint?"
Jason: Well, it would be a measure of the "footprint" space that comes from wasted (thrown away) materials; i.e. the waste category of "Household Ecological Footprint Matrix." Also, in addition to Wackernagel and Rees's Ecological Footprint Analysis waste calculation, there is the amount of landfill space that each ton of compacted waste takes up on average. Another idea may be to calculate everything we waste or never use in one year--this could equal a wasted footprint. What do you think?
Dr. Indicator: I think it sounds great. Anyone else have any comments they would like to add?
These comments are from Manna Jo Green. Manna can be contacted at HVENet@aol.com.
Manna: As a county Recycling Coordinator, I really appreciate the solid waste indicator, although I've noticed that most recycling rates are expressed as per person rates based on residential generation. However, in most areas businesses generate about 50% of the waste. Over the past ten years the recycling industry seems to have been able to capture a lot of that which is easily capturable, the bottles cans and various grades of paper and cardboard -- generated by the innovators, early adopters and most mainstream residents, most of the time, but not by the resistors and not by most businesses. (I suspect this is as true in Olympia WA as it is in Ulster County NY where I hail from.)
The challenges now are to deal with construction and demolition debris, tires, scrap metal, electronic components, white board (milk cartons, etc.), and difficult-to-recycle items such as carpet, toys, and items made of a mixture of materials that cannot easily be disassembled and may never be recycled. Also more infrastructure is needed (collection and transportation systems) for the above mentioned common recyclables, especially in the commercial/institutional sector.
The packaging industry is still uncontrolled either by self-imposed limits or by government regulation. And our fast-paced lifestyle in which human labor (for washing dishes, reusing packaging, autoclaving medical supplies, etc.) is more costly in dollars than disposable natural resources compounds the problem.
Composting the organic fraction of the waste stream is also important. Not just leaves, brush and yard waste in residents' backyards. I'm talking about large scale organic waste composting facilities that accept food from large generators such as schools, hospitals, restaurants, grocers, and other large food waste generators. Again, this will require collection, transportation and processing systems.
Moreover, the real solution is in waste prevention. We have not really begun to address this, let alone measure it -- as the increasing waste tonnages indicate. Finally reducing the total tonnage does not address the toxicity of the waste stream, which also needs to be reduced as a measure of sustainability.
Dr. Indicator: Those are all good points, Manna. It seems to me that what you are saying is that a solid waste indicator is important but isn't the only indicator that we need. Thanks for your comments.