On the surface, the question seems simple enough. The answer is not.
What is waste?
Bruce J. Parker, who has been around trash, professionally, for the past three decades, sighs and pauses a moment before considering the query.
"What is waste?" the CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association repeats before diving in.
"It's a very complicated question. Because in answering that question you're dealing somewhat theoretically that nothing should be waste, that nature does not re-create waste. Except for perhaps volcano rock, that everything is usable in nature – it has an ecological purpose.
"But the reality is, I take a very pragmatic and logical look at ' what is waste,' and the practical and pragmatic definition is that waste is anything that does not have a commercially achievable economic value," he said.
Parker, during his tenure with NSWMA, a trade group representing private solid waste management companies, has seen plenty of change in attitudes toward what is considered waste.
"When I began here back in 1981, it was important to get as much compaction on a garbage truck as you possibly could. Because the more compaction you had the less trips to the landfill or to the waste-to-energy plant or the [material recovery facility] or transfer station, which means the less emission you have and the quicker you run your routes and more trips you can make," he said.
Back then, he said, there was little regard to what was being delivered to the nation's landfills.
The evolving ton
That certainly is not the case these days, with evolving views of what this country considers waste.
"Today, it's just the opposite. It's how much trash can you get off the truck, to reduce the amount of trash on the truck, because we're realizing that so much of that can now be recycled or reused or remanufactured and converted into other types of products," he said.
"It's what Republic [Services Inc.] calls the evolving ton," Parker said.
The evolving ton, indeed.
It's been a couple of years since Republic Services came up with 'the evolving ton' slogan as a way to describe some fundamental changes hitting the trash business.
What was once considered a ton of trash is now being viewed differently, as social, economic and technological changes are coming together to allow for the separation of fractions that were once considered prime landfill fodder.
Regulatory input – mandatory versus voluntary recycling, for example – also helps determine what ultimately is waste across the country. And landfill bans on particular items also help change the landscape.
In many ways, the definition of waste can be different from house-to-house. Do you recycle? Do you compost? Do you just chuck everything into that 96-gallon container and call it a day?
The same is true on a larger scale, as cities and regions of the country decide what value to place on certain constituents of our discards.
What is considered waste in one area of the country – think glass or organics – can be recycled in another. The recycling infrastructure is fairly mature for items like paper, metals and plastics. Organics is considered the next great frontier in recycling, and there are places that already have tackled that stream and divert large percentages of that material from disposal.
But not all banana peels are created equal. Some are destined for compost piles while others eventually will help create landfill gas.
Republic Services says local views on recycling and waste diversion help the company shape its views of what is waste in a particular market.
"Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely," said Ted Neura, director of sustainable business planning and development at Phoenix-based Republic Services.
"Everybody has their own view of how you define that, how you box that in," Neura said about waste. "You can look at kind of the classic economics approach that's kind of anything that's waste, there's a negative economic value. It could be wasted activities, wasted time, wasted natural resources."
Or wasted waste.
With a national footprint, Republic Services looks to local residents to help it determine exactly what is waste.
" Waste is defined differently in different markets," he said. "We're in the service business, so one of our largest requirements is understanding what our customers want. And we focus on providing them a solution and alternatives.
"In some circles, there is a stronger emphasis on the economic aspects of waste. And in certain markets, there is a certain focus and stronger weight on the environmental impact."
California and the Pacific Northwest, for example, certainly have the reputation for more aggressively tackling the waste stream than the rest of the country.
John H. Skinner has spent his professional life around the trash business, starting out 40 years ago in the Office of Solid Waste at the U.S. EPA, eventually working his way up to director of the solid waste office. The long-time CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, Skinner said he has witnessed a sea-change in the nation's view of waste.
Like Parker, Skinner paused briefly to consider the question: What is waste?
"Wow … waste is an unrecognized opportunity. It shouldn't be waste. It should be a resource. And the fact that it still is waste is clear to me that we don't completely see it as a resource yet," he said.
"Does that make sense?" he said.
Skinner recently urged members of his professional group to keep an open mind when it comes to what is considered waste.
"Their perspective needs to change, where they are not only looking at their obligations to safely dispose of material, which they have always had that obligation, but they should look predominately at those waste materials as resources and think about how they can use them as resources," he said.
"I think this is more than just occasionally recycling and setting up recycling programs. It starts all the way from product stewardship, where you recognize that the products themselves that are going to be discarded have resource value," he said.
Waste as a verb
Consultant Gary Liss, who has been advocating a zero- waste approach since the mid-1990s, said even the dictionaries have it all wrong.
"Waste is a verb, not a noun," he said. "I tell my classes never to use the word waste unless 'zero' is in front of it, because everything is a material, resource, discard, a commodity, a product," he said. "There is no such thing as a waste.
"The only question is how do we reduce, reuse, recycle and compost to get to zero waste," he said.
Materials headed for the landfill or the waste-to-energy plant along the side of the road, he said, are items that have been discarded improperly.
"In a zero- waste world, all resources are designed to be used by others in some way, not to be burned or buried, and with zero air, water and land emissions as our goal," he said.
Liss maintained that the United States, only since the 1950s, has taken the wrong path in its attitude toward waste. "Up until World War II, we were basically a zero- waste society. We prided ourselves on our efficiency," he said.
"' Waste not, want not' is as American as apple pie," Liss said.
"Basically nothing that's discarded becomes a waste as a noun. It is wasted by [people] screwing up. The question is, who screwed up?" he said.
Was it someone who did not care, a faulty job description, a boss who gave orders, or the inertia of always being done a certain way? Or was it in the rules?
" Waste is a symptom of inefficiency. It is a design decision, and we can design it out. We used to do it, and we can do it again," Liss said.
WM pushes change
Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest trash company and recycler, has been at the forefront of reconsidering the waste stream through a series of investments aimed at finding additional value in our discards. The company is in the midst of a years-long push to dramatically increase recycling tonnage.
Waste Management has invested millions in a handful of emerging companies, through its Organic Growth Group, that are examining ways to harvest additional value from the waste stream.
"I think we're in a transitory state within the industry, and I think there's a whole lot of folks, some core competitors and new, emerging competitors, that are looking to take what is otherwise considered waste material and find better uses," said Joe Vaillancourt, managing director of the Organic Growth Group.
The sustainability movement has helped collectively push the country toward thinking differently about waste and recycling. Yet, technology and infrastructure improvements still are needed to move the needle farther, he said.
The capital markets also are starting to put large amounts of money into efforts to incubate and spawn approaches that will be successful, Vaillancourt said. "You're seeing a lot more companies and technologies commercialize at a faster pace than at any other relevant time period in the past.
"I think the inherent concept of this ' waste has value' has been there for some time. What's really emerged over the last five years is the feasibility of actually harvesting that," he said.
Waste Management, with " waste" in its name, is never far from the word, regardless of how much the company recycles.
"If you were looking at internally, what's the vernacular we refer to? I think we still, as a company, segment our waste by type," Vaillancort said, such as industrial, medical and residential.
"I guess the major term that we would use, either is resource or material. So we still characterize it as waste from a vernacular perspective, but we're really analyzing it from a resource perspective," he said.