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Pursuing Sustainable Solid Waste Management

July 2002

Citation: 32 ELR 10812

Issue: 7

Author: Marian Chertow

This Article discusses the original goals of Agenda 211 related to achieving "environmentally sound" solid waste management and reviews U.S. activities and policies with regard to solid waste over the last decade. Of greatest interest to the public and the media has been municipal solid waste (MSW)—ordinary household, commercial and institutional garbage or trash. Overall, the record of the United States in achieving sustainable solid waste management, including steady state or decreasing levels of waste generation and disposal, is mixed. On one hand, recycling and composting rates have increased dramatically and the portion of the U.S. population with access to curbside recycling has doubled to over 140 million people, helping to decrease the percentage of MSW that is landfilled. On the other hand, percentages tell only part of the story and mask some unsustainable trends: recent increases in per capita generation and landfill dependence.

The need for consistent data and indicators for solid waste management is highlighted here. Although one might expect quantification in this area, vastly disparate estimates of waste generation are confounding and suggest considerable discrepancies and room for improvement. In the late 1980s, when a disposal crisis seemed imminent, there was tremendous enthusiasm for reduction in waste generation and disposal. Most of today's solid waste policy, including the solid waste management hierarchy, stems from that era. While the ideas are sound, programs and practices clearly need revitalization. The United States must be prepared to address its growing complacency with regard to easy, but unsustainable, waste management "solutions."

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In August 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations will gather in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. In anticipation of the Rio + 10 summit conference, Prof. John C. Dernbach is editing a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, which is scheduled to be published by the Environmental Law Institute in June 2002, is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article will appear as a chapter in that book. Further information on the book will be available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

Marian Chertow is Director of the Program on Solid Waste Policy at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

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