Landfills are leading consumption indicators. Their use is declining in the recession. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the Loudon County landfill (that’s in Northern Virginia) has seen a decrease of 30% in the past year; nearby Prince William’s County has seen a 20% decrease. Loudon County’s landfill was slated to close in 2012, filled to capacity by that time. Because of the decrease in consumption–fewer Circuit City boxes to throw away, fewer packages and old appliances, more saving and reuse–it will be open for an additional year and half.
In an extravagantly wasteful society that typically puts 254 million tons of unwanted stuff at the curb to be thrown away each year, landfill managers say they knew something was amiss in the economy when they saw trash levels start steadily dropping last year.
Most of that 254 million tons is paper and packaging (32.7 percent by weight); astonishingly, almost a quarter of it is organic waste–yard trimmings at 12.8 percent and food scraps at 12.5 percent by weight.
Not that I cheer the fact of the landfill, but certainly it’s nice to see a clear example of the consumption-environment connection. Not that I cheer a diminished economy, but I do notice that one might develop economic trade based not on consumption alone but service, craft, quality, and exchange.
The need to reduce consumption may be one of the more basic truisms of ecological sustainability, even though it has been challenged by increasing patterns of consumption over the past half century. (Here is one of prior World’s Fair posts on the matter.) The result is that no matter how much we recycle, we consumer more each year; no matter how much we preserve open space or wetlands or park space, we eat up more land elsewhere than before; no matter how simple it seems to say “consume less” we still have blog commenters who deride the very idea.
It isn’t a new problem. It’s only been exacerbated by post-war, later twentieth century trends in hyper-consumer capitalism. William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, one of the most widely read works in environmental history–because it has been read as American history in general for the past quarter century, not just environmental history–is a story about new ways to live on the land introduced by colonists in New England between the 16th and 18th centuries. He notes in the conclusion that “Capitalism and ecological degradation went hand in hand.” Since the varieties of capitalism have proliferated since that time, I’d write instead that, of late, consumption and ecological degradation go hand in hand. Mt. Trashmores everywhere can attest.