The environment won a temporary reprieve in the recession as Americans slammed the brakes on one of their favorite pastimes: consuming stuff.
But while the austerity brought by a battered economy has cut pollution, it has also hit investment in green technology, which could damage the environment in the longer term, experts say.
“Certainly, in the short-term we are using fewer resources … (but) I’d much rather see a healthy economy,” said economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.
As the downturn has made people more frugal, landfill volumes have dropped and sales of appliances like air conditioners have plummeted.
Data suggests Americans are more open to using public transportation and reusing goods.
“There’s an unavoidable benefit, in the sense that they do consume less. There’s no getting around that. Fewer houses are being built, less sprawl,” said David Cassuto, professor of environmental law at Pace University.
The construction slump is a key reason garbage-dump volumes have declined, according to those in the industry. Sector-wide estimates are not available, but Waste Management, the top U.S. trash and recycling company, said its landfill volumes fell 13.6 percent in the first quarter from a year ago.
Americans are driving less, even though gasoline prices have tumbled from last year’s highs above $4 a gallon.
Many people are taking other small steps to cut costs where they can, even if it means appearing a little less crisp.
Dry cleaning has dropped about 20 percent from last year, the National Cleaners Association in New York estimates.
Lynette Waterson, owner of Crystal Cleaning Center in San Mateo, California, said the recession has made a big dent in dry cleaning frequency.
“I think people are probably not cleaning their clothes as often as they might under previous circumstances,” she said.
Research shows people have shifted their perception of what they need.
A Pew Research Center poll in April found the number of people who viewed clothes dryers as a necessity tumbled by 17 percentage points in 2009 from 2006. There was a 16 point decrease in those who viewed air conditioners as a necessity.
Alexander Lee, executive director of Project Laundry List, a nonprofit group that promotes line-drying clothes to save energy, said the recession brought an uptick in interest in his organization.
According to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, air conditioner sales in June plummeted 60 percent from a year earlier. Year-to-date, purchases are down 39 percent. Sales of all major appliances were down 29 percent for June and 19 percent year to date.
But reduced consumption may be temporary, said experts who bemoaned a decline in major investments in green energy that could benefit the environment in the longer-term.
“It’s not a long-lasting or sustainable reduction,” said Andy Stevenson, financial analyst for the National Resources Defense Council.
Americans are consuming less, but many have also lost their jobs and have little disposable income.
“If you’re driving less because you are not employed, that doesn’t really count to me,” Stevenson said.
Recycling volumes have declined with the value of commodities and as municipalities try to cut costs, said Bruce Parker, president of the National Solid Wastes Management Association.
Although no major metropolitan areas have decided to abandon the practice, some have considered putting recycling programs on the chopping block, he said.
Some investors have scrapped plans for clean energy ventures as financing for major projects shrinks.
The amount of new U.S. wind-power development is expected to fall for the first time since 2004 as tight credit and lower oil prices prompt a focus on smaller projects.
“A lot of deployment of solar and wind were on a very aggressive schedule and now they are being pared back a bit because of the recession,” Stevenson said.
T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oil man, has scaled back his plan to build the largest wind farm in the country.
Others say costs of cleaning up or protecting the environment are easier to bear during good economic times.
A fuel tax to cut carbon emissions, for example, might be more palatable to voters when times are flush than when unemployment is in the double digits, Baker said.
“People don’t mind paying a 50 cent tax on gasoline when they just got a two percent raise,” he said.
Credit: Rebekah Kebede