THE best way to handle the United States' growing heap of trash is not to create it in the first place. That's the conclusion of a new report, released July 18 by the solid-waste task force of the National Governors' Association. The idea is called source reduction. It means that businesses and consumers should try not only to recycle what they use but cut down on what they use as well.
``Prevention is always cheaper than the cure,'' the task force report says. ``If we leave less at the curb, we will inevitably put less in the ground.''
By the year 2000, the US will throw away some 216 million tons of trash a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That level of garbage is rapidly outrunning the nation's ability to handle it. US landfill capacity will be largely exhausted by that time.
Thus, the governors' new report is calling for the US to cut by half the amount of garbage it is expected to produce in the year 2000. Some 68 percent of the cut will come from recycling; 32 percent from source reduction.
As a first step, the report says, every American will have to cut his or her trash from the current average of 4.0 pounds a day to the 1985 level of 3.7 pounds a day. These EPA estimates are rough; other surveys suggest the current average may be 5.9 pounds per person a day.
Source reduction may prove to be more difficult than recycling.
``People say we have to change lifestyles in our country,'' says Joseph W. Bow, president of the Foodservice and Packaging Institute. And consumers are willing to handle their trash in a different way, he says, but they are unlikely to give up the convenient packaging of their fast-food restaurants, for example.
``I am optimistic the American public will change,'' counters Chip Foley, project director of the Source Reduction Council of the Coalition of Northeastern Governors. The 10-month-old council is made up of industries and industry associations, state officials, and environmental groups, all working to reduce the amount and toxicity of packaging through voluntary means. Already, the group has agreed on - and at least seven states have enacted - bans on four toxics used in packaging.
The governors' association is calling for a similar cooperative effort at the national level to be headed up by EPA. If the voluntary approach fails to produce guidelines and a plan by 1992, then Congress should mandate EPA to develop these, the report says.
Industry is willing to change, Mr. Foley says, but guidelines and standards will have to be developed. A 1992 deadline for his group would not be realistic, he adds.
Consumers can do a lot, too, the report suggests. Don't use unnecessary paper towels and napkins and other disposables, such as diapers and razors. Reducing paper use by copying on both sides would cut scrap paper by almost 5.5 million tons in the year 2000, the governors' report says.
Curiously, the draft of the governors' six-page press release announcing the new report was printed only on one side.
A July 19 article about the National Governor's Association's push to eliminate excess waste pointed out the draft of teh group's press release was printed only on one side. The geneeral press release, however, was printed on both sides, an important paper-saving measure.