Trash is a surprising indicator of economic prosperity

| January 7, 2014

If you’ve ever studied economics, you’ve looked at all kinds of leading and lagging indicators of an economy’s health. Perhaps you considered the Consumer Price Index (CPI), or the Current Employment Statistics (CES).

Did you ever consider garbage?

According to one recycling executive, measuring economic health is as simple as digging in the trash.

Joseph Fusco serves as a vice president at Casella, a garbage and recycling community company that serves several communities in New Hampshire. Fusco points out that overflowing trash bins following the holiday season mean one thing: people bought more stuff.

In a recession, consumers are more conservative with holiday purchases, and that means fewer boxes and less wrapping paper ending up at the curb. In a healthier economy, consumers feel confident splurging a bit more, and the evidence can be seen in the trash.

While Fusco identifies garbage as an economic indicator, it is indeed a “lagging” indicator — after all, we can’t evaluate it until the purchases have already been made. Still, it’s an interesting — and perhaps underrated — factor to consider.

The holidays are perhaps a concentrated example, but increased trash volume throughout the year can indicate economic health. Big TV boxes lining the curbs after the Superbowl? You can bet that things are going well.

“We’re at the end of a stream,” Fusco says in a recent article by Dale Vincent in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Product packaging isn’t the only indication of a promising economy. When things are looking up, Fusco sees increased waste from residential and commercial construction projects as well. Those projects introduce tons (literally) of additional materials to the waste stream.

The key is to make sure that recycling rates increase along with trash production rates, lest a healthy economy translate to clogged landfills. Another New Hampshire-area garbage and recycling executive says that one of the keys to making recycling work is making recycling simple. ” Pinard Waste Systems President and CEO Rob Allgaier says that single stream recycling is a big component of that.

It makes sense: when you’re drained from the holidays, it’s awfully tempting to just chuck all the wrapping paper, empty pumpkin cans, opened toy packages, and cookie crumb-filled paper plates into the garbage bin rather than dealing with sorting recycling.

After talking to Allgaier, Vincent reports that “There was a time when items had to be transported to a town recycling center by the resident and everything had to be sorted into separate bins, including glass by color, aluminum, tin, limited plastics, paper and cardboard separately. That’s changed dramatically, getting simpler and more things accepted.”

So the economy is improving. We’re buying more. Let’s make sure that the “end of stream lagging indicator” is a story about recycling — and not just garbage.

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About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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