The Guide To America's Mailstream
Ecology: Why Every Major Green Group Uses Mail : Postal2020.com
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Ecology: Why Every Major Green Group Uses Mail

Ecology: Why Every Major Green Group Uses MailEvery major environmental and consumer organization uses the mailstream to raise money, gain members, promote causes and distribute information. Larger groups send out tens of millions of items annually.

When asked if Greenpeace was contributing to the nation’s environmental problems because the group uses direct mail, Peter Bahouth, a former Greenpeace executive director, once told ABC News that “accusing environmental groups of paper pollution is a bit like saying that we need to get the ambulances off the street because they’re loud.”

You can check for yourself by looking at the IRS Form 990 which most non-profit organizations are required to make available to the public. More than 1.5 million non-profit groups are listed at GuideStar.org, and many post their Form 990s for public review.

Why do major ecology groups use the mails? Just take a look at mail and the waste stream.

How much garbage is produced each year?

According to the latest-available figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States produces 13 billion tons of nonhazardous solid waste each year. The EPA calls this material Subtitle D waste. (See: RCRA: Reducing Risk From Waste, EPA, EPA530-K-97-004, September 1997, page 5.)

Thirteen billion tons in the mid-1990s! That seems impossible. Is there an environmental organization with similar numbers?

Yes. As an example, Greenpeace has research showing that we produced 11.3 billion tons of Subtitle D waste in the 1980s.

The United States,” says the Natural Resources Defense Council, “produces between 12 and 14 billion tons of waste annually. This includes mining waste, oil and gas waste, agricultural waste, hazardous waste, food-processing residues, demolition debris, incinerator ash, and medical waste, in addition to municipal waste. The management of most of this waste is not regulated by U.S. federal law — it is exempt — and of the total, municipal waste accounts for only about 210 million tons.” (See: Too Good To Throw Away: Recycling’s Proven Record, Chapter 2)

The problem, of course, is that more recent Subtitle D figures are needed to better understand waste issues, information which the EPA has not made available to the public.

What is municipal solid waste?

In general terms, “municipal solid waste” or “MSW” can be seen as a limited number of items which are part of the overall waste stream. As the EPA explains: “our trash is made up of the things we commonly use and then throw away. These materials range from packaging, food scraps, and grass clippings to old sofas, computers, tires, and refrigerators. It does not include industrial, hazardous, or construction waste.” (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2006, EPA, page 2)

Does MSW equal all the stuff that goes into local landfills?

No. Although omitted from the 2006 MSW report, the EPA has plainly stated in the past that “some people assume that ‘municipal solid waste’ must include everything that is landfilled in Subtitle D landfills,” but this is NOT correct. (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, EPA, page 25)

“It has been common practice,” says the EPA, “to landfill wastes such as municipal sludges, nonhazardous industrial wastes, residue from automobile salvage operations, and construction and demolition debris along with MSW.” (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, EPA, page 25)

But wait a minute. Doesn’t the EPA say that the number of landfills has declined substantially during the past decade?

The EPA says two things: “while the number of U.S. landfills has steadily declined over the years, the average landfill size has increased.” It also states that “since 1990, the total volume of MSW going to landfills dropped by 4 million tons, from 142.3 million to 138.2 million tons in 2006.” (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2006, EPA, page 8)

In other words, older, smaller and less ecology-secure landfills are being replaced with a small number of larger sites which can benefit from new technologies and better management.

While the volume of MSW material thrown away has dropped by 4 millions tons per year, the amount of available landfill capacity is actually growing. As The New York Times has reported:

“It became clear in the early 1990’s that there was a glut of disposal space, not the widely believed shortage that had drawn headlines in the 1980’s.

“Although many town dumps had closed, they were replaced by fewer, but huge, regional ones. That sent dumping prices plunging in many areas in the early 1990’s and led to a long slump in the waste industry.

“Since then the industry and its followers have been relying on time — about 330 million tons of trash went into landfills in the United States last year alone, according to Solid Waste Digest, a trade publication — to fill up some of those holes, erase the glut and send disposal prices skyward again. Instead, dump capacity has kept growing, and rapidly, even as only a few new dumps were built.” (See: Rumors of a Shortage of Dump Space Were Greatly Exaggerated, August 12, 2005)

Where can I get more information regarding the landfill glut?

Press here to see our complete report.

How much MSW is there?

While the overall waste stream consists of some 13 billion tons of nonhazardous materials, MSW is just a small fraction of that amount. In 2006 we generated 251.3 million tons of MSW — 1.93 percent of the non-hazardous waste stream. (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2006, EPA, page 7)

Do 251.3 million tons of MSW go into landfills?

No. MSW in 2005 included 251.3 million tons of material before recycling, composting and energy recovery. The amount left to landfill was 138.2 million tons. (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2006, EPA, page 9)

Aren’t we landfilling more MSW than ever?

No. MSW generation is down. Recycling and composting are both up. The result is that MSW landfill use has declined.

For instance, the EPA reports that we landfilled 138.2 million tons of material in 2006 — that’s down from 142.3 million tons in 1990 — a time when we had 50 million fewer people. (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2006, EPA, page 9)

How long will it take to pack our landfills with MSW?

More than MSW goes into landfills, so the issue involves a wider array of waste than MSW by itself. No less important, we are now adding landfill capacity faster than we are using it.

The New York Times has reported that between 2001 and 2005 the nation’s three largest trash collectors — Waste Management, Allied Waste Industries and Republic Services — “buried 882 million tons of waste. But the remaining permitted capacity of their combined 410 dumps did not shrink. It expanded over those four years by more than one billion tons. The three companies now expect expansions of another 1.8 billion tons. At that level, their combined capacity could handle the nation’s trash sent to dumps for about 26 years.” (See: Rumors of a Shortage of Dump Space Were Greatly Exaggerated, August 12, 2005)

Not only are the three largest private companies increasing landfill capacity, the same is also true for other private and public facilities. This is happening because we are landfilling less and also because landfill technology is improving — we can get 30 percent more stuff into a given amount of landfill space than in the past, according to the Times. Equally important in the case of paper-based materials, scrap that used to be landfilled is now being exported to China. In fact, in 2007 the Chinese bought scrap paper worth more than $2 billion from the U.S.

Will we soon run out of landfill capacity?

No. In their most-recent annual reports, the three major collection and disposal companies told the Securities and Exchange Commission that they have enough landfill capacity today to last for decades — without further expansion.

We will develop new landfill sites using the latest and best environmental techniques — certainly as good as the technologies we use today and no doubt better. However, efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle should continue not only because they limit landfill needs, but because such practices are inherently good for the environment and for us all.

If annual Subtitle D waste totals 13 billion tons or more, why have we not run out of landfill space already?

Because much of the “waste stream” is nonhazardous industrial and production water, mining debris and agricultural waste that is left in place and not landfilled.

Is there any source which shows billions of tons of Subtitle D waste broken into categories by weight?

Yes. An official 1988 EPA study entitled, “Report to Congress: Solid Waste Disposal in the United States,” (EPA/530-SW-88-011) details Subtitle D categories. On page 11, Volume 1, is a table showing more than 11,387 billion tons of waste, including 158 million tons of MSW. In 1988, of course, we had a population of just 244,498,982 people, far fewer than today.

How much MSW is in the form of paper products?

Paper and paperboard products amounted to 85.29 million tons in 2006. However, paper-based products have traditionally had high recovery levels. While the general recovery rate for MSW is 32.5 percent, the recovery rate for paper-based products is 51.6 percent — meaning 44.02 million tons were diverted from America’s landfills. (See: 2006 MSW Characterization Data Tables, EPA, table 2)

Given that we live in the Internet era, wouldn’t it make sense avoid all landfill issues and just use email? After all, with email there’s no environmental impact.

The presumption that email has no environmental impact is simply untrue.

According to the Scientific American, “e-mailing, number crunching and Web searches in the U.S. consumed as much as 61 billion kilowatt-hours last year, or 1.5 percent of the nation’s electricity — half of which comes from coal. In 2005 the computers of the world ate up 123 billion kilowatthours of energy, a number that will double by 2010 if present trends continue, according to Jonathan Koomey, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. As a result, the power bill to run a computer over its lifetime will surpass the cost of buying the machine in the first place — giving Internet and computer companies a business reason to cut energy costs, as well as an environmental one.” (See: Digital Diet, April 2008)

Not only is energy consumption a concern, so is landfill usage. PC Magazine offers these examples:

___”A pile of our obsolete computers could make a 22-story mountain that covers the entire 472 square miles of the city of Los Angeles.”

___”Three billion units of consumer electronics potentially will become scrap between 2003 and 2010. That’s nine gadgets thrown away for every person currently living in the U.S.”

___”As little as 0.014 gram of mercury is enough to contaminate the fish in a 20-acre lake. The 300 million computers that have already been discarded contain enough mercury (about 0.5 gram each) to poison the Great Lakes eight times over.”

___”Nearly every large electronics and semiconductor manufacturer that began operations in the 1970s or earlier has an EPA Superfund site (deemed the worst toxic waste sites) in its history. Forty-one million Americans live within 4 miles of one of these sites.” (See: Measuring America’s E-Waste, March 17, 2008)

The important point, of course, is that email offers great value and utility, but email — like every other product and service — is not environmentally cost-free.

How much advertising mail is included within MSW?

Advertising mail totals 5.89 million tons before recycling. However, 2.28 million tons is recycled, a recovery rate of 38.7%. (See: 2006 MSW Characterization Data Tables, EPA, table 4)

So how much of the waste stream is advertising mail?

Using EPA data, as a Nation we have 13 billion tons of Subtitle D waste. We also have — before recovery — 5.89 million tons of advertising mail. In the worst case, advertising mail thus represents 0.000453 of the waste stream — about 5/10,000ths. After recycling, of course, the percentage is even lower.

How can we increase the percentage of advertising mail saved by recycling?

We now have thousands of local governments that collect paper — but not all paper. We would have significantly-higher recovery rates for ad mail if local communities collected all paper and not just newspapers. Given the worldwide demand for U.S. scrap paper, such enhanced collections would keep more material away from landfills while at the same time bringing additional money into the U.S.

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