Here's a side effect of the recession: With people buying less, garbage cans in California are emptier these days.
The amount of trash hauled to landfills has dropped to its lowest level since the state began keeping track in 1989, according to preliminary figures compiled by the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. California now has enough landfill space to last nearly 50 years.
Consumers and businesses produced about 30.4 million tons of trash in 2010, 28 percent less than in the 2005-06 boom years.
So why are trash companies still pushing to expand their landfills or build new ones?
Landfill operators, competing for increasingly precious waste, insist the new space will be needed when the economy rebounds. But industry experts say structural changes -- increased recycling, waste-to-energy technology -- may keep demand in check.
"In the 1990s, people were worried about a landfill crisis. Now, the opposite is true," said Evan Edgar, a lobbyist for the California Refuse Recycling Council.
Some of the decline stems from aggressive recycling and composting programs set up by cities and counties. But state officials, economists and waste management industry experts say the weak economy is the main driver.
"People do in fact buy fewer cases of beer, less clothing and less food when they are unemployed. Their income is dropping off or they fear that their income will drop off," said Richard Porter, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Michigan and author of a 2002 book, "The Economics of Waste."
Charlie Wilson, a plumber from east Sacramento, said he has been out of work for about 15 months, during which time the foot-high stack of trash he used to throw out each week has dwindled to half that much.
"There's absolutely less trash because we don't buy as much," Wilson said.
This new consumer frugality has squeezed landfill operators, who rely on fees paid for each ton of trash that arrives at their gates.
Several municipal landfill operations have imposed job freezes and wage cuts in recent years. Folsom's Waste Connections Inc., a private company, laid off 175 people and eliminated 400 jobs through attrition in 2008. The downsizing included 30 positions, or about 10 percent of the company's California workforce.
"It's a hard time for the industry," said landfill expert Neal Bolton.
According to CalRecycle, there are about 1.5 billion tons of unused landfill capacity in the state -- enough to last 49.3 years at current disposal rates.
Edgar said the glut comes as the waste management industry is going through major, long-term changes.
In recent years, the industry and the state as a whole have made great strides in recycling and composting. The state currently diverts more than half of its trash from local landfills, a tenfold increase since 1989.
At the same time, waste companies have developed new technologies that turn waste into energy, Edgar said. These changes will likely reduce the amount of landfill space needed in future years, even after the economy recovers, he said.