MARKET REPORT: Measuring Waste

In 2000, the United States could have seen a whopping 25 percent increase in municipal solid waste (MSW) generation. However, source reduction and recycling are having measurable impacts on the rate at which MSW generation increases, according to a recent report.

In the latest version of its annual report, “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2000 Facts and Figures,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., details various trends in the nation's MSW stream — tracing data collected from 1960 through 2000.

For instance, MSW generation continues to rise. Americans produced 231.9 million tons of solid waste in 2000, an increase of 0.3 percent from 1999 levels. However, this represents a slowing MSW generation trend. In 1999, Americans generated 3 percent more waste than in 1998.

Additionally, the per-person MSW generation rate has dropped from 1999 levels. That year, Americans generated 4.62 pounds of waste per person per day. In 2000, that figure dropped to 4.5 pounds per person per day. Yet Americans still are generating 60 percent more waste per person than in 1960, which was 2.7 pounds per person per day.

As it has in recent years, the report attributes the increase in MSW generation to strong economic growth in the 1990s. Between 1998 and 1999, for example, paper and paperboard generation increased 4.9 percent. The slowing trend between 1999 and 2000 can be attributed to a downturn in the market for paper and paperboard, and a 1.7-percent decline in production, the report states.

In 2000, recycling and source reduction also had a strong impact on MSW generation and disposal. Despite the economic slowdown, materials recovery, including paper and paperboard, increased substantially in 2000. Today, Americans have achieved a 30.1 percent recycling rate. Paper and paperboard recovery, as a percent of generation, increased from 40.9 percent to 45.4 percent in 2000. Approximately 57 percent or 15.8 million tons of yard trimmings were recovered for composting in 2000, nearly a four-fold increase since 1990.

When categorized by product type, containers and packaging were recovered at the highest rates. Almost 39 percent of containers and packaging generated in 2000 were recovered for recycling. About 55 percent of all aluminum cans were recovered (45 percent of all aluminum packaging, including foil), with 58 percent of steel packaging (mostly cans) recovered.

Paper and paperboard containers and packaging, mostly made of corrugated cardboard, were recovered at a 56 percent rate. Approximately 26 percent of glass containers and an estimated 6 percent of wood packaging were recovered as well. Only 9 percent of plastic containers and packaging were recovered, mostly soft drink, milk and water bottles.

Curbside recycling still is going strong, although the EPA reports that the number of curbside programs has dropped slightly from 9,300 in 1999 to 9,250 in 2000. Approximately 3,800 yard trimmings composting programs were reported in 2000 — the same as the previous year.

A higher recovery rate equals less waste being landfilled and combusted. An estimated 14.5 percent of MSW was combusted in 2000, slightly down from 14.7 percent in 1999. That same year, about 55.3 percent of MSW was landfilled, down slightly from 57.2 percent in 1999. The number of MSW landfills also has continued to decrease, down from nearly 8,000 in 1988 to 1,967 in 2000. However, average landfill size has continued to increase, and capacity is not a problem on the national level, the EPA says.

As a diversion measure, source reduction has grown dramatically in less than a decade. In 1992, the EPA estimated that only 0.6 million tons of waste were kept out of the waste stream. By 2000, 55.1 million tons of waste were diverted from the waste stream.

In reaching such diversion rates, reducing wasted yard trimmings has been particularly valuable, the report states. Forty-five percent of the waste diverted in 2000 came from organic waste materials, particularly yard trimmings. More than likely, this is due to local bans on yard trimmings disposal in landfills, as well as successful backyard composting campaigns and the use of mulching lawn mowers, the EPA says.

Additionally, containers and packaging represented 28 percent of the materials source-reduced in 2000. Nondurable goods such as newspapers and clothing made up 17 percent, and durable goods such as appliances and tires were the remaining 10 percent.

Source reduction has gained currency in the recycling advocacy community, especially as recycling and reuse have become more common practices. For example, INFORM, an environmental research firm in New York City, recently launched an online Community Waste Prevention Toolkit. The toolkit includes model legislation and purchasing strategies to promote source reduction and waste prevention.

“Preventing waste before it is created is the most cost-effective, environmentally sound and socially responsible way to address the challenges of the growing waste stream,” says Joanna Underwood, INFORM president.

For EPA's report, visit INFORM's toolkit is available at