Road to Recovery

AMERICANS ARE TRULY DOING MORE with less. Ending a steady growth pattern in municipal solid waste (MSW) generation throughout the 1990s, Americans generated less trash in 2001 than they did in 2000, according to the latest annual MSW report issued in October 2003 by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In its report, “Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures,” the EPA says Americans generated approximately 229.2 million tons of MSW in 2001 — a decrease of 2.8 million tons, or 1.2 percent, from 2000.

The economy always affects consumption and waste generation, and the sustained economic downturn that began in 2001 caused MSW generation to decline to 4.4 pounds per day, a decrease of 2.2 percent from 2000 to 2001, the EPA says. The agency also contends that the decrease could be attributed to a 5.7 percent decline in paper and paperboard production. Nevertheless, the trends indicate a “stabilization” of the generation rate, which has increased from 2.7 pounds per person per day in 1960, 3.7 per capita pounds in 1980, and 4.5 pounds in 1990.

Additionally, Americans are recycling and composting more: The nation's overall recycling rate was 29.7 percent, up from the previous year's 29.2 percent. Excluding composting, the amount recovered for recycling increased to 51.4 million tons in 2001, a slight increase of 0.2 million tons from 2000. The MSW recovered for composting rose to 16.6 million tons in 2001, up from 16.5 million tons. And the number of curbside recycling programs in the United States rose to 9,700, a 5 percent increase from 2000, primarily in the West.

Paper and paperboard recovery, as a percentage of generation, increased from 42.3 percent to 44.9 percent, caused largely by thriving export markets, the EPA states. Over time, recycling rates have increased from 10 percent of MSW generated in 1980, to 16 percent in 1990, to 29.7 percent in 2001.

As always, the EPA classifies MSW by analyzing it by material (e.g. paper, glass or wood) and by product category (e.g. containers and durable and nondurable goods). Broken down by material, the EPA found that, in 2001, paper and paperboard made up the largest component of generated MSW at 36 percent and yard trimmings comprising the second-largest component at 12 percent. Glass, metals, plastics, wood and food scraps each comprised between 5 and 12 percent of the total MSW generated.

The highest recovery rates were achieved with yard trimmings, paper products and metal products. About 57 percent, or 15.8 million tons, of yard trimmings were recovered for composting in 2001 — a four-fold increase in the amount recovered since 1990. About 45 percent, or 36.7 million tons, of paper and paperboard were recovered. About 6.3 million tons, or 35 percent, of metals were recovered for recycling in 2001.

Containers and packaging comprised the largest portion of products generated in 2001, at 32 percent, or 74 million tons, of total MSW. Nondurable goods formed the second-largest percentage, at 26.4 percent or 60 million tons. Durable goods comprised 16.4 percent, or 38 million tons.

Similarly, containers and packaging formed the highest percentage of product types recycled, with 38 percent of containers and packaging recovered. Metal cans led all container types that were recovered. About 49 percent of aluminum cans, and 59 percent of steel packaging (mostly cans), were recovered in 2001. Nevertheless, the Arlington, Va.-based Container Recycling Institute reported in 2003 that the aluminum can recycling rate had dropped five consecutive years in a row, reaching its lowest recovery rate since 1980.

The recovery rate for paper and paperboard containers and packaging, primarily corrugated cardboard, was 55 percent in 2001. By contrast, glass, wood and plastic did not fare as well at the curb. Approximately 22 percent of glass containers and only 15 percent of wood packaging were recovered. Only 10 percent of plastic containers and packaging recovered. Last fall, the National Association of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) Container Resources (NAPCOR), Charlotte, N.C., issued a report showing that PET plastic bottles' recycling rate had dropped from 22.1 percent in 2001 to 19.9 percent in 2002, about half the 39.7 percent rate achieved in 1995.

Of nondurable goods, newspapers constituted the largest portion of products recovered, with 60 percent of newspapers generated being recovered. Nonferrous metals other than aluminum had a high recovery rate, at 65 percent, due primarily to lead recovered from lead-acid batteries. Recovery of steel in all durable goods was 27.8 percent, with high rates of recovery from appliances and other durable goods. Thirty-nine percent of rubber in tires was recovered.

The EPA continues to emphasize the importance of source reduction, which it places at the top of its waste management hierarchy, followed by recycling and composting, and then disposal through waste combustion, landfilling or other means. Diverting yard trimmings from the waste stream was a particularly important source-reduction success story, the agency says. Almost half the waste prevented in 2000 — estimated at just more than 55 million tons — came from organic waste materials, particularly yard trimmings.

“Had this source reduction not occurred,” the report continues, “waste generation in 2000 would have risen from the actual level, 232 million tons, to 287 million tons. Source reduction avoided an increase of nearly 25 percent.”

In total, Americans recycled 68 millions tons (29.7 percent) of MSW, combusted 33.6 million tons (14.7 percent) and landfilled or “otherwise disposed of” 127.6 million tons (55.7 percent) in 2001. But it still will be important to focus on “utilizing existing recycling and composting facilities, further developing this infrastructure, and buying recycled products, to conserve resources and minimize our dependence on disposal through combustion and landfilling,” the EPA says.

A copy of the EPA's report with additional data can be found at