Double Dip

MSW generation drops for second straight year in 2009.

The United States generated 243 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2009, according to a report recently released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the report, which is titled “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures,” that total represents a decline of 8 million tons, or 3.2 percent, from the amount of MSW generated in 2008.

2009 marked the second straight year that total MSW generation declined in the United States. In 2008, the country produced 251 million tons, a decrease of 4 million tons from 2007’s total.

What’s behind the decline? The sluggish economy of the past few years has no doubt had some impact, says Chaz Miller, state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA). In a recession, people buy fewer goods and therefore discard less. But the economy’s biggest impact has been on the generation of construction and demolition (C&D) debris, Miller says, and C&D materials aren’t included in EPA’s definition of MSW.

The declines of 2009 and 2008 are more the result of “a fundamental change in how we use materials,” Miller says. Per capita waste generation declined to 4.34 per person per day in 2009. That figure is a decrease of 4 percent from 2008 and marks the continuation of a trend that started about a decade ago.

Fueling this per-capita generation decline is a drop in paper consumption — down more than 21 million tons from 2000 — and an increase in the use of lightweight plastics instead of heavier materials, Miller says.

The continuing implementation of zero-waste goals by companies and communities also will have an impact on the size of the MSW stream in the years ahead. In the future, total MSW generation may increase from one year to the next due to population growth, but the decline in per capita waste generation is a trend that should continue, Miller says. (For more of Miller’s thoughts on the 2009 EPA data, turn to his Circular File column, titled “The Waste We Were."

In 2009, 33.8 percent of generated MSW was recycled (this percentage includes composting). That’s a slight increase from the 2008 figure of 33.4 percent and reflects the continuation of a long-term trend. In 1960, the national recycling rate as calculated by EPA was just 5.6 percent. By 1990, the rate had reached 16 percent. Ten years later, the rate had risen to 28.6 percent.

According to EPA, 54.3 percent of the MSW generated in 2009 was landfilled. That marks a slight increase from the 2008 rate of 54 percent but marks a significant decline from the nearly 70 percent rate of 1990. In 1960, a whopping 93.6 percent of generated MSW was landfilled.

Also, 11.9 percent of generated waste was combusted for energy recovery in 2009; in 2008, 12.6 percent of MSW was combusted.

A copy of “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures” can be downloaded from the EPA's website.

Waste Age also has coverage of the 2009 EPA data in the following stories in this issue:

• For a more detailed breakdown of the 2009 EPA MSW data, turn to this month's Profiles in Garbage.

• In “The Taste of Zero Waste," Bryan Staley, president of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, examines what future declines in waste generation and landfilling could mean for the solid waste industry.

“While these recent numbers could largely reflect a down economy and the resulting reduced consumption, the waste minimization trend is no doubt increasing in momentum, and reduced or flat waste generation could be the new norm in the future,” Staley writes in the article.