With recycling more mainstream than ever and an economic downturn in which people have bought less stuff, Americans are throwing away less trash.
According to Environmental Protection Agency statistics, 243 million tons of municipal solid waste was generated in the U.S. in 2009. That figure is down from the all-time high of 255 million in '07.
The drop is even more precipitous in Tempe, where 34,658 tons of residential waste was collected in fiscal 2009-10, a 10,000-ton decline from 2006-07.
"The economy and recycling awareness have been big factors," said Mary Helen Giustizia, Tempe solid waste services manager. "People are becoming more aware of their purchasing habits and re-using things more. There has been a huge awareness of thrift stores, which have blossomed in the last two to three years. Used bookstores are growing.
"People are learning to re-use and repurpose things that they used to discard."
Nationwide, 82 million tons of material was recycled in 2009, up 14.5 million in 1980 and 33.2 million in '90.
Those trends have quelled worries of a landfill crisis in America. There are more than 3,000 landfills in the U.S., much fewer than in decades past. But they are much bigger and are using technology - as well as their own recycling efforts - to maximize life.
"The business is changing," said Kevin McGrew, CEO of the Salt River Landfill, which serves Mesa, Gilbert, Tempe and Scottsdale. "It used to be a hole in the ground. Not anymore.
"Everything we get, we look and see if it can be recycled. If not, then it's disposed of and buried."
Long gone are the days of the town dump. Federal health-safety regulations passed in the 1970s resulted in additional expenses that caused many municipal facilities to close, said Richard Porter, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and author of "The Economics Of Waste," a 2002 book.
"You had to have those regulations because dumps were getting too dirty, but it got expensive," Porter said. "Today, the landfills we have add up to more capacity than all of the thousands more landfills we had 40 years ago. We have huge, huge landfills - this idea that we're running out of landfill space is not true."
In Arizona, there are 41 municipal solid waste landfills and 32 private facilities, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. About 8.6 million tons of refuse was sent to those landfills in 2008, the most recent year data is available.
The 200-acre Salt River Landfill has about 15 years of life remaining, McGrew said. He added that the housing market decline has impacted Arizona's trash, as the landfill is taking in much less construction materials.
Landfills collect fees from their contracted municipalities based on the tonnage of trash that arrives.
"Does (less fees collected) have an impact?" McGrew said. "Yes, but like any business that is open every day, like an ice-cream store or anything else, you have to become more efficient - controlling labor costs, offsetting fuel costs. We've tried to get more efficient."
Less trash to collect has helped Mesa's solid waste department become more cost-efficient. Two collection trucks have been removed from the city's fleet, and routes have been combined, community outreach specialist Sandy Stechnig said.
Mesa's average weekly trash tonnage in May was 2,111, a 2-percent decline from a year ago.
"The more efficient we can keep our routes, that's less to spend in equipment and fuel costs," Stechnig said. "With this decline, with the trucks collecting less material, it helps us a lot."
While an economic upturn might result in more consumption of goods - and more trash - Giustizia said that could be offset if recycling participation grows.
While Tempe's annual recycling tonnage has stayed level (at around 13.5 million) in recent years, the recycling rate has gone up - suggesting that more stuff is going in the blue, rather than black, containers.
"We're definitely seeing reductions in tonnages going to the landfill," Giustizia said. "For the most part, recycling in this country is voluntary. You can't force people to do it. The fact that people are recycling as much as they are says a lot. We're finding in Tempe that some people are putting more in their recycling bins than their trash bins."