Consumers and Their Garbage in the Wide Open West

ABSTRACT - Solid waste disposal should be a problem for every element in the extraction, production, distribution, use, and discarding chain. Ideal solid waste disposal will be enhanced by charging the full cost of that solid waste to the element in the chain which creates it. Short-run ideal solid waste disposal practices will be achieved primarily by penalty/compliance. Long-run ideal practices will come through internalization and altruistic behavior. Personal garbage management is a necessary key, with each individual, whether in an individual or business setting, takes personal responsibility for solid waste creation. Our children, the next generation, will be the primary change agents in substantially reducing solid waste because of their internalization of ecologically sound behavior.


H. Keith Hunt (1993) ,"Consumers and Their Garbage in the Wide Open West", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 547-549.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 547-549


H. Keith Hunt, Brigham Young University, Provo, USA


Solid waste disposal should be a problem for every element in the extraction, production, distribution, use, and discarding chain. Ideal solid waste disposal will be enhanced by charging the full cost of that solid waste to the element in the chain which creates it. Short-run ideal solid waste disposal practices will be achieved primarily by penalty/compliance. Long-run ideal practices will come through internalization and altruistic behavior. Personal garbage management is a necessary key, with each individual, whether in an individual or business setting, takes personal responsibility for solid waste creation. Our children, the next generation, will be the primary change agents in substantially reducing solid waste because of their internalization of ecologically sound behavior.


Interest in recycling is nearing a crescendo in the US. Recycling is the current "fad". Recycling is environmentally "correct". With rapidly changing laws regarding solid waste landfills the legal liabilities and noncompliance penalties are making solid waste a major element in city and county decisions and budgets.

The purpose of this paper is to share some observations about solid waste management in the US.


What Does the US Do With Its Waste?

A recent article in City & State (Sloan, Jan. 27, 1992) quoting the United States Environmental Protection Agency as source showed the following (see table 1).

While the tonnage of solid waste continues to increase, the year 2000 estimate shows less of it going to landfills and more of it being recycled and waste-to-energy incinerated.

Fewer But Mega-Bigger Landfills

In the March 23, 1992 Wall Street Journal Barrett (1992) reported the following National Solid Waste Management Association figures for dump closings. Figures are for number of landfills operating in the U.S.

Year         Approximate # Of Landfills Operating in US

1979 -         19,500

1988 -          6,000

1992 -          4,000

2000 -          2,000 est.

Sloan (Feb. 24, 1992a) reported that costly federal regulations are forcing many landfills to close. The new rules from EPA and additional state rules are making small local landfills economically impossible to operate. The usual solution is for several smaller communities and counties to band together to open one EPA approved, state approved land fill. Bailey (1992) reports that "Most dumps that closed were tiny, more than offset by a handful of huge new waste sites. At the same time, increased use of incineration, recycling, and, more recently, the effects of the recession have combined to cut more deeply than anticipated into the nation's refuse that must go to dumps."

And Sloan (Feb. 24, 1992b) reported that megafillsCregional, sometimes served by rail, are one answer to our landfill problem. They are deeply rural, thus avoiding Not-In-My-Back-Yard problems.

As we hear of landfills closing the natural inference is that we have a shortage of landfill capacity. The opposite is true. With the creation of mega-landfills our landfill capacity is greater than it has ever been.

The next natural inference is that if we have no landfill shortage we have no solid waste problem. Wrong! Just because we have the capacity doesn't mean we have to fill it as fast as possible.

The real issue is that for the good of the earth and all plants and animals living on it, we need to minimize the amount of solid waste we put into perpetual storage, instead finding other more productive ways of dealing with solid waste.

For example, John Rotruck, a packaging expert for Procter & Gamble says "60% of US solid waste could be disposed of through composting if we just had the system to do it....We may be inadvertently misleading the public into thinking that we're going to recycle our way out of this issue." ("Recycling Is Not Only Answer..., 1992).

Curtis Babb, manager of packaging research for Hershey Foods Corp. says "We promise consumers that if you recycle, if you go to the effort to establish curbside collection and sort product out in your home, this problem is going to do away. I don't think its going to do that." Consumers might turn against recycling if its benefits continue to be exaggerated. ("Recycling Is Not Only Answer..., 1992).


Cities often make horrendous mistakes when entering into recycling and solid waste management. The problem is much more complex than nonexperts ever imagine. It is common to focus attention on only household solid waste, but industrial solid waste can be a large percentage and can pose much greater problems than does household waste. Composting alone may reduce landfill tonnage substantially, as much as 30% in summer. Because of the complexity it is almost mandatory to use highly specialized consultants especially in the early stages to thoroughly analyze solid waste flows.


Semantics, as always, is a major factor. For example, what is "recycled" paper? The issue is whether the paper has to have been through consumers' hands to be labeled "recycled." If the paper from the manufacturing process, for example the trim from making envelopes, is reused in the manufacturing process, is the resulting new paper recycled or remanufactured? To be labeled "recycled" does 100% of the new product have to come from recycled materials? or only 50%? or 5%? or 1%? As requirements proliferate for recycling required percentages of various materials, definitions become critical. Much of the "recycled" paper you feel so good about using was the scrap from the manufacturing process, never having been outside the paper manufacturing facility before being "recycled."



The Whole Chain

As I've thought about solid waste disposal I've come to the same conclusion as have many of you. Concern about solid waste is too narrowly focused and needs to be repositioned to be concern with the whole production/consumption process. Much of our solid waste problem could be avoided by the use of different production, packaging, use, and discarding practices. Our current practice in which each stage of the process independently acts in its own best interest leads to substantial diseconomies. Only as society can be forced to think about the whole chain can ecologically sound decisions be made. Otherwise decision makers, as now, maximizes their own self interest, even though it may cost society more in the long run.

Full Costing

We have to find some way to charge the cost of garbage to the levels in the production/distribution channel which cause the garbage. Some fault lies with the individual consumer, of course. But other fault lies with the manufacturers, processors, and distributors who use high-garbage methods because it is cost efficient for them. Often it is a joint matter, in which providers simply provide the product in the form and package most desired by consumers. Many consumers would find previously attractive packaging to be unacceptable once that packaging carried its full garbage costing.

Often, the question might be where in the channel the garbage ought to be separated out. For example, in meat, most meat comes with bones. Bones become garbage. If the bones are separated out at the packing plant where the meat is cut from the carcass then the bones can be used for by-products. If the bones accompany the meat to the end consumer then those bones become general garbage fit only for incineration or burial. If bones carried their full solid waste cost we would see few bones at the meat counter. However, currently the meat vendor sells us those bones at the price of the meat and we would see a substantial change in meat cost per pound without the bones.

If we can find some way of charging the full cost of garbage to the those who create the garbage, then garbage creators will become garbage conscious. Soon innovators will develop new garbage friendly elements in the production/distribution systems.

Vested Interests

There is a whole major industry built up around the collecting and treating and storing of garbage. This industry will lobby for continuing as is. But the answer doesn't lie with the garbage industry. The answer lies in not creating garbage in the first place. The only acceptable path is to reduce the amount of garbage created, not to worry what to do with it once it has become garbage. It lies in not using high-garbage products AND in reuse of items that have to have a residual.

Matching Supply and Demand for Recycled Materials

Ideally, the market for recycled materials would grow at the same rate as recycling provided increased amounts of materials. But it isn't happening that way. In some areas there is a substantial imbalance. In other areas, such as the Mountain West, USA, there are no markets except for aluminum, newspaper, and cardboard. Who is supposed to store the recyclable materials until a remanufacturing company appears? The volume and transportation costs will never warrant transporting the recycled solid waste to a remanufacturing company. Do we incur transportation costs to ship the recyclable materials to a remanufacturer, often incurring far more transportation costs than the finished recycled product will sell for? Or does this become just a mutant form of perpetual storage, only now we have paid more money than if we had treated it as regular landfill garbage.

Internalization and Compliance

Compliance, whether with local separation laws or with keeping the paper trail to verify that Federal recycling laws are complied with, is expensive, more expensive than the remanufactured product made from recycled materials can ever be sold for. The only feasible solution is voluntary, internalized recycling. But often, as with littering, internalization comes only after a generation of penalty-induced compliance.

Revising the Textbooks

We need to make disposal/reuse as much a part of consumer behavior courses and texts as we make innovation and consumer decision making.


It is easy to point out the need for reducing landfill residual. We can conveniently place the blame on producers and distributors. The individual consumer, however, remains the key.

Personal Garbage Management

It is hard to create individual perception of the need to curtail garbage creation. How do we get individuals like ourselves to become personal garbage managers? It requires a

personal commitment, a change in behavior regarding discarded residual products and components. Allow me to again use the example of littering. I can remember as a child in the open west that when riding in the car and you were through with something it went out the window. Bottles, cans, paper, food, whatever C out the window it went. Now that behavior is considered totally unacceptable. That same kind of change can occur with garbage. But it has to be an internalization, not a compliance or identification group process. (Kelman, 1958) Penalties and compliance may bring us to correct garbage behavior, but it will be temporary until it becomes part of the group norms accepted by the individual.

The Adoption Process, Adopter Categories, and Diffusion

The adoption process proposes that individuals progress through a hierarchy of stages C unawareness, awareness, knowledge, liking, trial, use evaluation, adoption, continued use. It seems likely that consumers adoption of personal garbage management will follow somewhat these general stages.

Because different people, for a variety of reasons, proceed through these stages at different rates, we have long talked about adopter categories C innovators (first 2.5%), early adopters (next 13.5%), early majority (next 34%), late majority (next 34%), and laggards (last 16%). In my opinion, some areas of the US having easy-to-use recycling systems may have advanced as far as the early majority stage. Other areas, especially rural areas and open areas, are still at the innovator stage.

How rapidly an innovation diffuses through society depends on several key characteristics of the innovation: relative advantage, complexity, communicability, compatibility, divisibility, and perceived risk. A more full discussing of these diffusion characteristics may further elaboration in later papers. For now let me simply remind us of what we already know C that the more personal garbage management can be presented in a diffusion-friendly way, the faster the diffusion will occur.

Altruism vs. Compliance or Family Conflict Avoidance

In the early stages, much of conquering garbage will be due to altruistic behavior mixed with legal penalties. Recycling will be required. Composting will be required. There will be large fines for noncompliance. Already there are garbage patrols in some cities.

However, in the long run I think the driving forces in developing personal garbage management are (1) altruistic behavior toward the earth and humankind and (2) education in the schools, especially the primary grades. You manage your garbage because you think it is the "right" thing to do for the good of everyone and because your kids hassle the heck out of you every time you misbehave.

Children A Primary Influence

Our children, carefully taught in school and propagandized by the media, may become one of the strongest influences on personal garbage management. Children are not hampered by many of the complexities which pressure adults. Children are open to the basic truths that we are totally dependent on the Earth, that garbage hurts the Earth, and that we must do all we can to reduce garbage and recycle what we can't avoid.

"Recycling is something that everybody can take an active role in, an effort of which kids can actually see the results. For the little boy in the inner city, issues surrounding endangered species C while he may care a lot about animals C lack direct connection. Recycling is something he can do today." (Michael Shildmyer, quoted in Montanari, 1991) The article goes on to tell about Captain Planet and the Planeteers (a co-production of Ted Turner's Broadcasting System and DIC Enterprises) which debuted on WTBS in the Fall of 1990 which is television's first animated action/adventure environmental program. The weekly half-hour show is currently being carried by over 200 stations.

Pressure from our children to change our garbage behavior will change us in the short run. And, or course, those children are our long run.

The Dark Side

Garbage might ought to be considered part of the dark side of the market place. Instead of ruining lives through drugs, prostitution, war, etc., garbage ruins the Earth on which we are all totally dependent. As we experience heightened desire to save the earth and care for it we will see increased pressure to minimize extraction and minimize garbage.


Garbage is a concern whose time has come for the US. It came long ago for some countries. And it is yet to come for other countries. Uniform federal laws will force solid waste management practice on the whole US, not just on those areas most needing it.

It is difficult enough to create an awareness of and caring about personal garbage management in the crowded areas such as New York City. It becomes almost impossible to create such awareness and caring in the wide open areas, for example the Mountain West of the US, where so much of the land is nonagricultural and the existing gullies are so deep and just waiting for solid waste to be dumped in them and covered.

Consumer garbage creation is very much a private matter. While the individual's garbage problem is caused by many powerful external factors (e.g. manufacturers packaging, manufacturer's product configuration causing residual, culture) the end final decision of what to buy and how to dispose of the residual is made by the consumer, usually in private.

Cultures differ greatly in their production of garbage, what they consider to be garbage, and their treatment of garbage. Societies can learn from each other. It is through symposia such as this one that we learn the ways that different societies deal with garbage.


Bailey, Jeff, "Space Available: Economics Of Trash Shift As Cities Learn Dumps Aren't So Full," Wall Street Journal, June 2, 1992, p. A1, A6.

Barrett, Paul M., "High Court To Enter Waste-Disposal War," Wall Street Journal, March 23, 1992, p. B1.

Kelman, Herbert C., "Compliance, Identification, and Internalization: Three Processes of Attitude Change," Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol 2 (1958), pp. 51-60.

Montanari, Richard, "But Seriously Folks," Recycling Today, June 1991 pp. 54-55.

"Recycling Is Not Only Answer To Garbage Ills," Enterprise Observer, November 4, 1991, p. 3.

Sloan, Todd, "Burn, Garbage, Burn," City & State, January 27, 1992a, p. 15.

Sloan, Todd, "Megafills Sited In Rural Areas," City & State February 24, 1992b, p. GM1.

Sloan, Todd, "Putting The Lid On Landfills: Costly Fed Regulations Force Many To Shut Down," City & State, February 24, 1992 p. GM1.



H. Keith Hunt, Brigham Young University, Provo, USA


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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