Here's one barometer of the recession that doesn't come right to mind: Garbage. Or recycling.

Both have changed, according to Twin Cities experts in the field, and they link the shift to the economic downturn.

According to the people who monitor our waste, we've been sending less to the landfill and the incinerator, a result of buying less stuff. While recycling participation has held steady, they say, tonnage is down because what we're recycling has changed: less paper (newspapers, advertising circulars and packaging from the stuff we're not buying) and more of the detritus of a simpler life: containers from food, beverages and other staples.

Aside from being a sign of shrunken spending, the changes mean less energy spent hauling and processing garbage, more landfill space available and less environmental impact from mining and processing virgin materials.

Haulers, meanwhile, are feeling the pain of less product and lower prices, but they're making adjustments to weather the storm, just like everyone else. It's not clear, yet, how changes in the industry will affect Minnesotans' pocketbooks.

Paul Kroening, supervising environmentalist at Hennepin County Environmental Services, is one of those who peg the changes to the economy.

A series of monthly drops in refuse delivery to Hennepin County facilities started in November 2007, just before the downturn began. From the first half of 2007 to the first half of this year, deliveries of solid waste to the county refuse burner and landfills fell by about 15 percent, Kroening said.

"Clearly, the economy was resulting in less generation of waste," he said.

As for recycling, "The general trend is that more people are eating in, so there are more [food-related] recyclables created from the households, less [retail] packaging, less cardboard because people aren't purchasing items shipped in cardboard," said Mary Chamberlain, a St. Paul-based environmental consultant for RW Beck, a national engineering and consulting firm. "It's being felt from all levels, from business to residential."

Though statewide data on municipal solid waste and recycling aren't available for 2008 or the first part of this year, changes in several cities between the first half of 2007 and the first half of 2009 appear to be a microcosm of what Chamberlain and others say is a national trend.

• Blaine: refuse tonnage down 4 percent, recycling down 13 percent.

• Plymouth: refuse down 3.3 percent, recycling down 12.7 percent.

• White Bear Lake: refuse down 13 percent, recycling down 5.5 percent.

Part of the drop in tonnage may be due to other factors, such as the shift in recycling from heavy paper to lighter plastics and aluminum. Other variables also apply: pickup structure, third-party incentives, availability of processors and more.

On the street

The winding streets of Ashfaq Ahmad's Maple Grove neighborhood were dotted with blue waste and recycling carts Thursday. Pausing before taking in his empty cart, Ahmad said he wasn't aware of a difference in his trash or recycling.

"It's hard to notice," he said. "If the change comes, it comes slowly."

Ellen Telander, executive director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota, concurred that trash may not be foremost in people's minds.

"That's the last thing on your list of things to do, to take out trash or take out the recycling," she said.

It's not clear yet what trash and recycling shifts, paired with a steep drop last year in prices haulers can get for recyclable materials, will mean for consumers.

Minneapolis-based Eureka Recycling, which offers municipal recycling collection and processing, is considering renegotiating contracts with its cities, among other options, said Tim Brownell, co-president and chief operating officer. But it remains to be seen whether any change would be reflected in homeowners' fees, Brownell said.

Allied Waste is working through the downturn by supplementing its customer base, drawing in recyclers with gift incentives; Rich Hirstein, Allied's area municipal services manager, credits the program with increasing recycling participation and tonnage in pilot cities.

Waste Management is broadening its market, offering recycling for mercury compact fluorescent bulbs, pharmaceuticals and more, said spokeswoman Julie Ketchum.

Another shift may be on the horizon, though. Kroening noted that in June, intake in Hennepin County exceeded expectations for the first time in a year and a half. At MPCA Recycling, market development coordinator Wayne Gjerde noted that plastics prices are beginning to show signs of recovery.

Will a recovery mean a comeback for garbage?

"It's hard to know and hard to see into the future," Chamberlain said. "We would hope that people would continue their habits of recycling, and more than recycling, reducing and looking for ways to reuse items instead of going out and purchasing new."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409