As a general rule, a country produces waste in proportion to its economic growth. And for decades, waste generation in the United States adhered to that rule.
The more affluent the country is,
The more they consume
and the more they throw out. This creates stress on the environment
But a recent study showed that in the U.S., something caused that rule to bend, and then break.
Researchers compared the growth of municipal solid waste (MSW) to the growth of personal consumption expenditures (PCE). At first, MSW and PCE grew at the same rate—as expected.
But between 1995 and 2000, the growth of MSW slowed compared to the growth of PCE. This means that the amount of waste in the U.S. stopped keeping pace with the amount of consumer spending.
The data revealed another unexpected twist. In 2010, the amount of waste produced in the U.S. actually started to decline, despite a continued rise in consumer spending. The rule finally broke.
This phenomenon of waste generation diverging from that of consumer spending is known as “decoupling.”
What caused the decoupling?
The short answer: plastics.
To identify the cause of the decoupling, the study’s authors analyzed the types of materials in the waste stream from the 1960s until today. The most significant change was an increase in plastics. Consumers were using more plastics, instead of alternative materials like glass, paper, and metal.
It may seem counter-intuitive that the increase of a single material could lead to a decline in waste overall. But when you consider the material—plastics—it makes sense. More lightweight than alternative materials, plastics take up much less space in landfills. In fact, many plastic products and packaging have decreased both in thickness and in weight in the last two decades.
Today in the U.S., MSW includes 83 times more plastics than in 1960. Yet, the total MSW is only twice as large.
A look at waste generation without plastics
Consider the alternative. If consumers weren’t using plastics, they’d be using more glass and metal in substitution. On average, products require 3.2 times more of those alternative materials than if plastics were used. In regard to packaging specifically, the combined weight of alternative materials is about 4.5 times more than the weight of plastic packaging.
The study also analyzed scenarios if plastics were never introduced into the waste stream. Those projections predicted that today’s waste would still be increasing at the same rate as consumer spending. And any possibility of decoupling would be delayed by at least 30 years.
While consumers use significantly more plastics than ever before, the properties of plastics actually help reduce the amount and weight of material needed for packaging and container applications. The decoupling effect demonstrates that plastics play a role in helping to reduce waste and improve environmental sustainability, even as U.S. consumer spending habits increase.
Switch to plastics and save
Do you know how much your organization could save by replacing alternative material packaging with plastics? Use our interactive tool to estimate the weight and volume savings, as well as the potential reduction to municipal solid waste.