Sunday, March 15, 2009

Trash Talk

I have been trying for months to understand why the world’s smartest economists and the ever-vigilant news media – not even Jon Stewart -- failed to foresee the current financial disaster that will have us all speaking Chinese in a generation or less.

All I had to do, it turns out, was ask my garbageman. But he may not speak Chinese, or even English.

The Washington Post, which employs a Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist, and which just announced the death of its daily business section, just found the answer and put it on the front page Saturday.

Along with the stock market and the foreclosure rate, a less-heralded barometer has signaled the arrival of hard times: the landfill.

In an extravagantly wasteful society that typically puts 254 million tons of unwanted stuff at the curb to be thrown away each year, landfill managers say they knew something was amiss in the economy when they saw trash levels start steadily dropping last year. Now, some are reporting declines as sharp as 30 percent.

"The trash man is the first one to know about a recession because we see it first," said Richard S. Weber, manager of the Loudoun County landfill. "Circuit City's closing, so people aren't going there and buying those big boxes of stuff and throwing away all that Styrofoam and shrink-wrap . . . and whatever they were replacing."

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