Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)

For a second consecutive year, Americans produced less solid waste.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) is the stuff we have used and no longer need. EPAs MSW data does not include construction and demolition debris, hazardous, medical, radioactive or industrial waste, so this profile similarly excludes those items.

EPA estimates the size of the waste stream by using manufacturing production data, estimates of product imports and exports, and estimates of product lifetimes. Food and yard waste estimates are based on sampling studies. EPA has used a consistent estimation methodology for four decades.

Waste data from the 50 states uses actual tonnages from disposal, recycling and composting facilities. State data shows more solid waste than EPAs data. Using state data, Biocycle magazine estimated 389 million tons of solid waste were generated in 2008, a 24 million ton decline from the previous 2006 survey. The states do not count waste consistently, often including non-hazardous solid waste such as construction and demolition (C&D) and industrial waste.

In a more comprehensive survey, the Environmental Research and Education Foundation tallied all U.S. disposal facilities and estimated that 545 million tons of waste were managed in 2000, of which 146 million tons were recycled or composted. That data covers all non-hazardous Subtitle D solid waste managed outside of the generators facility.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington. E-mail him at: [email protected].


Municipal Solid Waste 2009 Facts

Generated:

  • 243 million tons.
  • 1,583 pounds (lbs.) per person per year.
  • 4.34 lbs. per person per day.
  • Food waste, yard trimmings, corrugated boxes, plastic packaging and wood packaging are the largest items in MSW before recycling.

Recycled:

  • 61.3 million tons, a 25.2% recycling rate.
  • 399.3 lbs. per person per year.
  • 1.09 lbs. per person per day.
  • Corrugated boxes, newspapers, office paper, glass bottles and standard mail are the most recycled by weight.
  • Lead-acid batteries, newspapers, corrugated boxes, office papers and major appliances have the highest recycling rates.
  • Aluminum cans, recycled paperboard, corrugated medium and glass bottles have high levels of recycled content.

Composted:

  • 20.8 million tons of yard and food waste, or a 8.6% composting rate.
  • 59.9% composting rate for yard waste.
  • 2.5% composting rate for food waste.
  • 135.5 lbs. per person per year.
  • 0.37 lbs. per person per day.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 160.9 million tons, or 66.2% of MSW.
  • 29 million tons combusted with energy recovery.
  • 131.9 million tons landfilled.
  • 1,048.2 lbs. per person per year.
  • 2.87 lbs. per person per day.
  • Food waste, yard waste, furniture, plastic packaging and clothing and footwear are the largest components in the disposal stream.

Landfill Density:

  • 323,812,000 cubic yards of MSW landfilled in 1997.
  • Corrugated boxes, clothing and footwear, yard waste, and food waste occupy the most space in landfills.
  • Aluminum cans and plastic bottles have the lowest landfill density.
  • Glass bottles and food waste have the highest landfill density.
  • An average pound of trash has a landfill density of 739 lbs. per cubic yard.

Source Reduction:

  • Backyard composting and grasscycling and product lightweighting successfully reduce the waste stream.
  • Paper generation is down significantly due to the Internet and computerization.
  • Economic recessions curb waste generation.

SOURCES:

Biocycle magazine, www.jgpress.com/biocycle.htm

Environmental Research and Education Foundation

Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2009, U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/msw99.htm

Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, www.isri.org

National Solid Wastes Management Association

National Source Reduction Characterization Report, EPA

*Data is from 2009 EPA estimates, except where noted.