Recycling and responsible waste disposal may be well and good, but the most eco-friendly waste management strategy is not creating waste at all. At least that's the message conveyed in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) latest annual waste report, “Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in the United States: 1999 Facts and Figures.” For the first time, the Washington, D.C.-based EPA has been able to measure the rate at which waste is being prevented, also known as source reduction.
The agency's “preferred order” of waste management options puts source reduction as its highest priority, followed by recycling and composting, with landfilling and waste combustion as a last resort. According to the report, Americans source-reduced approximately 50 million tons of waste in 1999. That year, 229.9 million tons of MSW were generated. Without source reduction, the report states, 22 percent more MSW would have been generated.
EPA's annual report tracks trends in the nation's MSW stream — tracing data collected from 1960 through 1999. For instance, the 229.9 million tons generated in 1999 represents a continuing increase of waste produced each year — a 6.9 million or 3 percent increase over 1998. Per person, Americans are generating 60 percent more waste than 40 years ago. In 1960, the generation rate was 2.7 pounds per person per day. In 1999, it had grown to 4.62 pounds per person per day.
The report attributes the increased waste generation to strong economic growth in the 1990s, but it also points to source reduction's ability to dampen these increases. Yard-waste composting, mulching mowers and “lightweighting” of containers also have slowed the waste generation rate.
Additionally, recycling increased in 1999, although not dramatically. Excluding composting, the amount of MSW recycled increased to 50.8 million tons, representing a 2.4-million-ton or 5 percent increase. Including composting, the recycling figure stands at 64 million tons. The overall recovery rate was 27.8 percent in 1999, an increase from 27.6 percent in 1998.
The number of curbside recycling programs also grew, according to the report, which included 1998 numbers. More than 9,300 curbside recycling programs existed in the United States in 1998, which increased from approximately 8,900 such programs in 1997. In 1998, about 3,800 composting programs for yard trimmings were reported, up from 3,500 programs in 1997.
The EPA also breaks down the recycling rates for MSW materials by commodity. Paper and metals were recovered at the highest rates in 1999, according to the report. Corrugated containers comprised the bulk of paper and paperboard recovery, which was collected at a 51 percent rate. Approximately 44 percent of aluminum packaging and 57 percent of steel packaging — both dominated by beverage cans — were recovered in 1999.
Other organizations that have surveyed aluminum and steel recovery underscore the EPA's report with their own impressive figures. Last April, the Aluminum Association, the Can Manufacturing Institute and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, all Washington, D.C. based, jointly announced that Americans had recycled 62.1 percent of aluminum cans in 2000 — or nearly two out of every three cans manufactured.
Yet other commodities did not fare as well at the curb. The EPA reports that glass, wood and plastic were recovered at much lower rates than metal and paper. Approximately 27 percent of glass containers were recovered for recycling. Only 10 percent of wood and 10 percent of plastic packages were recovered in 1999.
This latest report also marks the first time that certain consumer electronics — TVs, radios, telephones and personal computers — were measured as a portion of the waste stream. The study noted that more than 400 million units of consumer electronics were shipped in 1999, representing approximately 0.8 percent of waste generation and 0.3 percent of the recovery.
Although electronics recovery likely will increase as dependence on these products grows, a recent study shows that electronics recycling's pace is sluggish at best. According to the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Center, Washington, D.C., approximately 20.6 million personal computers became obsolete in the U.S. in 1998. Of that number, only 11 percent, or approximately 2.3 million units, were recycled.
The recycling rates for all these commodities collectively demonstrate that most waste still is landfilled. According to the report, with 2,216 landfills operating in 1999, there are now far fewer MSW landfills than there were in 1988, when nearly 8,000 were in operation. However, a landfill's average size has increased. In 1999, 57.4 percent of waste was landfilled. At the national level, the report states, “capacity does not appear to be a problem, although regional dislocations sometimes occur.”
The report makes a case for increased source reduction to reduce the nation's dependence on disposal through combustion and landfilling. “As economic growth results in more products being generated,” the report concludes, “there will be an increased need to invest in source reduction activities, such as lightweighting of products and packaging, reuse of products, grasscycling and backyard composting.”
For a copy of the report, visit www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/msw99.htm#links.