In his May 1999 installment of Beyond the Pail, Bill Rathje noted that his Garbage Project characterization for Phoenix, AZ, produced results indicating that container size influenced disposal performance, an insight most of us accept but one that is still often overlooked. Equally interesting as you will see, were (and are) the consequences—unintended as well as intended—of the container size situation.
For those of you who read this a decade and a half ago, you’ll delight in seeing it for a second time. As for you to whom this is new territory, you’re in for a most rewarding experience…as much from the information it contains as for the genius of its author.
Parkinson’s Law of Garbage
By W.L. Rathje
Only two refuse realities can reduce stalwart Garbage Project sorters to fear and loathing. One is raw, rancid chicken; the other is Parkinson’s Law of Garbage. Anyone in its vicinity immediately recognizes rancid chicken; Parkinson’s Law of Garbage was exposed only after thousands of Garbage Project sorts of household refuse pickups.
The original Parkinson’s Law was formulated in 1957 by C. Northcote Parkinson, a British bureaucrat who concluded, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Parkinson’s Law of Garbage similarly states, “Garbage expands so as to fill the receptacles available for its containment.” So when garbage hits the bin, the bigger the bin, the more garbage that will hit it. This conclusion was a surprise to garbage sorters.
When we conducted a waste characterization for the City of Phoenix, AZ, in 1987, we found that the average household in Phoenix threw away almost a third more refuse than the average household in our home base of Tucson, AZ. Yet the demographics and the natural and cultural environments are very similar. Phoenix did have a 90-gallon mechanized system, but so what? We just didn’t get it.
That is, we didn’t get it until Tucson switched to a mechanized collection system in 1988, and the average weight of our sample pickups—a weight that had been stable for 15 years—increased by nearly a third in the first year.
The packages and wastes of normal food and cleaning staples hadn’t increased. What had blossomed, however, was very revealing.
First, there was a large increase in yardwastes that might otherwise have been composted or—like various-sized rocks and grass clippings—just left in the yard.
Second, we found a big jump in old clothes and other textiles that might have been given to relatives, friends, and charities or even sold to thrift stores.
Third, our records showed a significant rise in household hazardous wastes, all in the form of a number of substantial-sized items—several paint cans or a bunch of containers filled with photographic chemicals—all thrown out together in one pickup. In other words, the new discards were those very items that many of us hope will be dropped off at HHW collection sites.
Fourth, large quantities of newspapers, glass and plastic bottles, steel and aluminum cans, and other recyclable items that could have been placed out for curbside collection lay hidden in the big bins, awaiting their landfill destiny.
In summary, the drastic increase in solid waste was caused by equal parts of just what wouldn’t need to be thrown away and just what you wouldn’t want to have thrown away.
Parkinson’s Law of Garbage is really quite simple. When people have small garbage cans, larger discards (e.g., old cans of paint, broken furniture perpetually awaiting repair, bags of old clothing) typically do not get thrown away. Rather, these items sit in basements and in garages, often until a residence changes hands.
But when homeowners are provided with plastic mini Dumpsters, they are presented with a new option. Before long, what was once an instinctive “I’ll just stick this in the cellar” becomes an equally instinctive “I’ll bet this’ll fit in the dumper.”
While the evidence for Parkinson’s Law is not yet totally conclusive, its implications go to the heart of every city’s solid waste management strategy.
During the past decade, many municipalities have switched from a system by which homeowners provide their own garbage cans and sanitation workers emptied them by hand, to a system in which the city provides special containers that trucks empty mechanically. The object is to save labor costs and reduce worker injuries. Mechanized trucks can handle only a limited number of sizes of bins. Since large households must be accommodated, most city residents receive a Godzilla-sized, 90-gallon wheeled container—versus the old standby of an unwheeled, 40- or 60-galon galvanized can—which might be leading people away from the path of garbage minimization and righteousness.
Of course, there’s an inverse to Parkinson’s Law. As many cities are documenting, when people pay for their garbage pickup based on how much they throw away but don’t have to pay for recyclables, then recycling bins are more full and not as much gets thrown away. I realize that illegal dumping might increase under such a system, but the official channel for garbage disposal has a smaller wastestream to handle.
This doesn’t mean that I am arguing against mechanization. Mechanization dramatically decreases worker injuries, and that is important.
In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, only underground miners have a more dangerous job than solid waste employees. And to show you that my heart is in a garbage place, I am currently lobbying as hard as I can for health organizations to adopt Vanishing Point syringes. These syringes are more expensive than those currently in general use, but after one injection, the needle itself snaps back into the heavy plastic body of the syringe. No properly used Vanishing Point needle will ever “stick” a garbage worker.
And because mechanization protects employees from various injuries, I’m for that too. I just hope that in a move to cut injuries and collection costs, we are not undoing all of the good that recycling and source-reduction efforts have already accomplished. Remember that, according to Franklin Associates, we are now recycling about 18% of our wastes and that the garbage collected from households with a mechanized 90-gallom bin system increased by more than 25%. There must be a way to mechanize the collection of a variety of smaller containers!
Over the past 5,000 years that humans have lived in cities, archaeologists have identified case after case in which the citizens recycled and reused like crazy but then went out and conspicuously consumed far more, perhaps as to reward themselves for conserving. Let’s remember Parkinson’s Law of Garbage and try to avoid patting ourselves on the back and shooting ourselves in the foot at the same time.