DAYTON, Ohio – Thrift-driven Americans are fixing up, making do and reusing so much to cope with the recession that the drop in throwaways means less fill for landfills.
To deal with the drop-off in dropoffs, landfills are laying off workers, reducing hours of operation and raising disposal fees, with the increases passed along to cities, businesses and consumers.
“You can look at waste and see what the economy is doing,” said Tom Houck, manager at the Defiance County Landfill in northwest Ohio. He’s watched the amount of trash arriving at the landfill plunge 30 percent in the past year.
With consumers cutting back on new purchases, there is less packaging to throw away. The downturn in new housing means less waste from construction materials such as insulation and from discarded drywall and lumber. Restaurant waste is down because people are eating out less.
“We’re seeing this all over the country,” said Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association.
Environmentalists applaud the trash slash.
“That will mean the landfills will last longer,” said Ed Hopkins, director of the environmental quality program for the Sierra Club. “That is good for the public because nobody likes to live next to a landfill.”
Hopkins said the reduction in waste is good for the environment because even modern landfills can leak, enabling pollutants to seep into groundwater.
Thom Metzger, spokesman for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, said that while national figures won’t be available for months, the association is hearing about the decline from many members.
Landfills in Ohio received 15 percent less waste from August to January than they did for the same period a year earlier. The waste stream at Miramar Landfill near San Diego has dropped 35 percent over the past year. Waste at Puente Hills Landfill near Los Angeles is down from 12,500 tons of trash a day to about 8,500.
About 82 temporary workers have been laid off at Puente Hills and its two sister landfills, shrinking the work force to about 280 and forcing permanent employees to take over traffic control, windy-day litter pickup and landscaping.
Several landfills operated by Waste Management Inc. – which runs about 270 active landfills in 47 states – have gone from operating six days a week to five or have reduced hours of operation, said spokeswoman Lisa Kardell.
Waste Management’s fourth-quarter profit slid 29 percent on declines in its recycling business and one-time charges. But in its earnings report, the Houston-based company also mentioned declines in the collection of industrial waste.
Landfill operators rely on disposal fees to fund operations. If the amount of waste decreases, operators have to cut costs, dip into reserve funds or increase the fees, which are passed along to consumers.
In the Columbus suburb of Grove City, the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio landfill – with 10 percent less waste – has raised disposal fees by $2 a ton to $35.50 and dipped into its reserve fund. The landfill also is considering accepting trash from out of the district.
Making it last
Potential trash is being sent to repair shops.
Louis Johnston, an economist at the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, Minn., said that during good economic times people spend about 1 percent of their consumption budget on repairs. During recessions, that jumps to 5 percent.
When the ice maker in Maureen Schlangen’s 12-year-old refrigerator went kaput, she didn’t have the fridge hauled to a landfill. She went back to ice trays, buying two for $1.50 apiece and borrowing a Mickey Mouse tray from a neighbor in the Dayton suburb of Kettering.
When Janet Bittner’s 5 wood came apart, the Appleton, N.Y., resident borrowed a screwdriver from her brother and repaired the golf club instead of throwing it away.
At the Computer Zoo in the Dayton suburb of Miami Township, servicing of used computers is up 25 percent. And what normally was a customer wait of five to seven business days has become as long as 13.
“People don’t have the kind of money to spend buying a new system when they can repair their old stuff for like half the cost,” said Dan Seidl, purchasing manager.
People are shopping more at thrift stores but donating less.
Sales at the 2,220 Goodwill Industries International stores in the United States and Canada that have been open for at least a year were up 7.2 percent in February over February 2008.
“While the number of donors is increasing or remaining the same, we are seeing the two-bag donor now bringing in only one bag,” spokeswoman Lauren Lawson said.
The Goodwill operation in Washington, D.C., has started appealing for donations in talks at schools, businesses and civic groups. It is sending trucks out to pick up donated items instead of waiting for the goods to be brought to stores or pickup points.
If Schlangen and Bittner are any indication, Goodwill has its work cut out for it.
Bittner extends the life of her shoes by sometimes putting slippers on at the office. Schlangen has learned to live without an automatic ice maker.
“In times like these, our culture is moving toward making do with what we have,” she said. “And an ice maker is a luxury.”
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