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“Honey, would you take out the trash?” Someday, that phrase may seem as quaint as a request to pick up whale oil at the general store. After rising forever, the amount of trash Americans generate has begun to drop. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, total municipal solid waste peaked at 255 million tons in 2007 before notching its first-ever slide to 251 million tons in 2008, followed by a drop to 243 million tons in 2009.
The per-capita generation of cardboard boxes, leftover lettuce, grass clippings, ripped sofas, obsolete computers and other things we throw out has also fallen. In this case, the peak came in 2000 at 4.72 pounds per American, per day. Today, that figure is back to where it was in the late 1980s — 4.34 pounds per day.
Meanwhile, recycling rates have climbed. As a result, a slight majority — 54 percent and shrinking — of today’s solid waste goes into landfills. And some kinds are almost ready to be reclassified as resources rather than as refuse: Recycling rates for paper and cardboard top 62 percent, with compostable yard trimmings close behind at nearly 60 percent. Unfortunately, though, just 7 percent of plastic gets recycled. So, while taking out the trash may not be as common in the future, it’s not ready to disappear from honey-dos yet.