Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

September 2012

The Trashing of America

By Barbara Palmer, Senior Editor
these gigantic, utility-scale, regional, epic, many-hundred-million-dollar projects. Maybe your question tells us how we tend to think here, which is it is a system as opposed to a very individual and local phenomenon.

If you look at some of the positive things that are happening in the U.S., you have towns and cities that have collectively decided by voters and leaders that they want to rewrite the book on waste, communities like San Francisco and Portland, and, for that matter, Lee County, Fla., and other areas that are trying to redefine how we deal with waste.

Do you see any common denominators in what motivates people to change?

I see a lot of variation. I see businesses realizing how much it costs [to be wasteful] and that it gives them a competitive advantage to be less wasteful. That can manifest itself in sending less material to landfills, recycling more, putting their materials to use, instead of paying someone to haul away their trash or their food waste. Walmart is a good example, in composting its food waste and actually selling the compost. So they turn their waste cost to [an] actual source of revenue.

In the course of working on Garbology, I spoke with some people involved with running sports venues, and how they have really been working to divert their immense amounts of waste from their events from landfills, and to change the character of the waste so a higher percentage of it could be recycled or composted. There is a lot of variation between locations.

In Seattle, venues have really been leading the charge on this and are building renewable energy into their portfolio of how they power their stadiums. They see value both in terms of their operating costs and also in their branding. That seems it would be apropos to the meetings industry in general.

How do individuals come to that realization? I think that economic motivation can be one [way]. Certainly, look at communities that have instituted robust container-deposit rules, they have uniformly higher recycling rates. Why? Because it saves money...Or communities that, because of this legislation, have very convenient recycling programs. You see a huge change there, again primarily for economic reasons.

How could one person make a difference? Again, I think if you look a little beyond an individual household, you can see the magnetic force that a leading community can have on the rest of the world. Places like Portland or San Francisco or others really set the standard that many other communities have sought to emulate. You have Los Angeles [saying,] "Oh no, we want to be the green leader in California." You have New York sort of shamed into ramping up their recycling program.

And other communities [are] following because they see that the outliers and the leaders who have taken these lower-waste paths are reaping benefits from it. Each of those communities have taken the lead, starting out with a much smaller number of individuals who made this a personal priority for them. 

Book Excerpt From 

Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash

The EPA reports a third of our trash gets recycled or composted, but the real-world figures indicate that this diversion rate is less than a fourth of our total trash.

It's tough to overcome an addiction when you can't even admit how big a problem you've got.

That 102 tons [of waste per person over a lifetime] is just what Americans personally toss in the garbage can and haul to the curb, the trash in our direct control. Counting all the waste transported, extracted, burned, pumped, emitted, and flushed into the sewage system by and on behalf of each American man, woman, and child, as well as what's tossed out by U.S. industry in order to make the products Americans consume, the total waste figure for the nation reaches 10 billion tons a year. This raises the per-capita garbage calculation considerably. By such an all-waste accounting, every person in America stands atop more than 35 tons of waste a year, or a staggering average lifetime legacy of 2,700 tons. No wonder America, with 5 percent of the world's population, accounts for nearly 25 percent of the world's waste.

Then there's the wallet issue. Trash is such a big part of daily life that American communities spend more on waste management than on fire protection, parks and recreation, libraries, or schoolbooks. If it were a product, trash would surpass everything else we manufacture. And guess what? It has become a product, America's leading export.

Waste FAQ

A few facts about the state of garbage in the United States, from Edward Humes' research: 
  • America is home to 4 percent of the world's children, but Americans buy and throw away 40 percent of the world's toys.
  • Americans throw 96 billion pounds of food in the trash each year. Just 5 percent of that food would feed 4 million people for a year.
  • Americans throw away 25 billion nonrecyclable Styrofoam cups a year, enough to circle the Earth 436 times.
  • Americans throw away 694 plastic water bottles every second.

Sidebar: A Phantom Fact

During our interview with Edward Humes, he expressed surprise when he heard the often-repeated assertion that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had ranked the meetings industry second only to the construction industry in terms of waste generation. ("I'm shocked" were Humes' actual words.)

Given Humes' expertise on the EPA's accounting of waste, we weren't going to take his skepticism lightly. And it turns out, although the claim can be found in meetings industry speeches and publications going back to 2004, the EPA appears to have never published a study supporting it, according to Tamara Kennedy-Hill, CMP, executive director of the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC). The agency reviewed materials including 54,000 of its own digitized reports, and couldn't find the source of the quote, Kennedy-Hill told Convene. Apparently someone made an error that was picked up and repeated, the EPA concluded in an exchange with Kennedy-Hill.

That's not to say that the meetings industry is not a significant generator of waste, Kennedy-Hill said, but this case underlines the need to find reliable ways to quantify the environmental impact of meetings.

More Resources
  • For more information about Edward Humes and Garbology visit edwardhumes.com
  • The Green Meeting Industry Council (gmlcglobal.org) promotes sustainability and provides education and other services to planners,suppliers, and venues. Many of its resources are available to nonmembers.

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