Here’s another 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. 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.

Consumers and businesses produced about 30.4 million tons of trash in 2010, 28 percent less than in the 2005-06 boom years.

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.”

For Jerard Watson of south Sacramento, the point hits home each time he takes out his garbage can, which is much lighter these days.

Watson said his employer, a local shipping company, recently announced cutbacks in worker hours, forcing him to tighten his spending. Watson said he eats fewer meals at restaurants and purchases more of his groceries in bulk, reducing the packaging and food waste he throws away.

 “You never know what tomorrow will bring,” he said.

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.

Despite the abundance of dump space, some individual operators whose landfills are running out of room are pushing to expand as they compete against other landfills with plenty of space. Waste Connections, for instance, recently obtained county approval to quadruple the size of its Potrero Hills landfill.

 The company paid $57.5 million to buy the landfill in 2009. Now it’s backing legislation to overturn Measure E, an initiative passed by Solano voters 27 years ago to limit the waste that can be shipped to Potrero Hills from outside the county.

 The landfill, which sits near Suisun Marsh, a state-protected wetland, had been importing about 500,000 tons of garbage from the Bay Area before Measure E was upheld last year in court.

 “While we see a flat trend now, we don’t think that will be sustained,” said Jim Little, Waste Connections’ senior vice president of engineering and disposal. “We take a very long view of the cyclical economy and its demographics.”

 Elsewhere in the Bay Area, the city of San Francisco is pursuing a plan to send 500,000 tons of its trash each year on train cars to the Yuba County town of Wheatland.

 San Francisco now dumps most of its waste at Altamont Landfill near Livermore, but officials say that the Yuba County landfill would help save the city more than $130 million over a decade through lower “tipping” fees.

 Altamont has 45.7 million cubic yards of capacity, or nearly eight years’ worth of space. Keller Canyon Landfill in Pittsburg has enough capacity for 35 years, according to CalRecycle records.

From the Sacramento Bee, By Rick Daysog