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Getting wasted

There are millions of tons of garbage in the Ninth District. This is their story.

March 1, 2005


Douglas Clement Editor, The Region

When you finish reading this fedgazette—word-for-word, cover-to-cover—we highly recommend that you slide it into an envelope, seal it hermetically and archive it in a temperature-controlled vault for the reading pleasure of future generations.

More likely, you'll toss it in the trash. Or maybe burn it—we occasionally provoke that response. Perhaps you'll decide to put it in a recycling bin so that bits of it might eventually find their way into a future fedgazette.

Those three options reflect what we as a country generally do with the things we no longer want. We dump them into landfills, burn them in incinerators or recycle them into new products. And while your choice about this particular newspaper may not be of great consequence, our collective decisions about waste disposal have immense weight. Estimates vary, but one source suggests that the United States generated nearly 370 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2002.

In some sense, these tons of garbage are simply "the effluence of affluence." When we produce and when we consume, we generate waste. And as economies prosper—meaning higher standards of living and greater consumption of products—waste also grows, though usually at a somewhat slower rate than the economy does.

An economist would say that a society generates an "optimal" amount of waste when the price it's willing to pay for disposing another ton of it equals the marginal cost of that disposal, including all costs—collection, landfilling, environmental protection, and so on. Sounds good in theory perhaps, but in practice, measuring both sides of that equation has proven difficult.

Putting out the trash

In any case, economies devote a substantial sum to getting rid of this garbage in a process we call "waste management." It's an optimistic term that implies we can cleanly dispose of all the stuff we no longer want. But while the management of waste is big business, it's a very messy process.

Most of our garbage ends up in landfills—increasingly located in rural areas that don't want them—but many worry that we aren't paying the full cost of burial. Until we do, we're likely to overproduce trash. We recycle a significant portion of our waste, but some critics say recycling itself is a waste of time and money. Its advocates counter that recycling faces an uneven playing field in a world devoted to virgin materials and throwaway extravagance. And then there are garbage burners—a waste management technology that once seemed farsighted and now, to many, seems foolhardy.  

Governments at federal, state and local levels have tried to address these issues with regulations, prohibitions, mandates, subsidies, taxes and public education programs. Some policies have met with success. Others have simply created new problems.

In this issue of the fedgazette, we take a close look at the waste we create and at the decisions we make about whether our garbage will be buried, burned or born again.

Douglas Clement
Editor, The Region

Douglas Clement was a managing editor at the Minneapolis Fed, where he wrote about research conducted by economists and other scholars associated with the Minneapolis Fed and interviewed prominent economists.