Profiles in Garbage: Municipal Solid Waste 2010

Ending a two-year decline, U.S. waste generation ticked up in 2010.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) is the stuff we have used and no longer need. EPA’s MSW data does not include construction and demolition (C&D) debris, hazardous, medical, radioactive or industrial waste. This profile does not include 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 is estimated 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 EPA’s 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. State data often includes non-hazardous solid waste such as C&D and industrial waste. The 50 states do not count waste consistently.

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 was managed in 2000, of which 146 million tons was recycled or composted. That data covers all non-hazardous Subtitle D solid waste managed outside of the generator’s facility.

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


MSW 2010 Facts*


  • 249.9 million tons.
  • 1,617 pounds per person per year.
  • 4.43 pounds per person per day.
  • Food wastes, yard trimmings, corrugated boxes, plastic packaging and wood packaging are the largest items in MSW before recycling.


  • 64.8 million tons, a 25.9% recycling rate for all MSW.
  • 36% recycling rate for MSW not including food and yard waste.
  • 419.3 pounds per person per year.
  • 1.15 pounds per person per day.
  • Corrugated boxes, non-groundwood printed paper (office paper) newspapers/groundwood paper, glass bottles and lead acid batteries are the most recycled by weight.
  • Lead-acid batteries, corrugated boxes, newspapers/groundwood paper, steel cans and “major appliances” have the highest recycling rates.

Recycled Content:

  • Aluminum cans, recycled paperboard, corrugated medium and glass bottles have high levels of recycled content.


  • 20.2 million tons of yard and food waste.
  • 8.1% composting rate for all MSW.
  • 57.5% composting rate for yard waste.
  • 2.8% composting rate for food waste.
  • 130.7 pounds per person per year.
  • 0.36 pounds per person per day.

Burned or Landfilled:

  • 164.9 million tons or 66% of MSW.
  • 29.3 million tons combusted with energy recovery.
  • 135.7 million tons landfilled.
  • 1,099.5 pounds per person per year.
  • 3.01 pounds per person per day.
  • Food waste, yard waste and furniture are the largest components in the disposal stream.

Landfill Density (1997 data):

  • 323.8 million cubic yards of MSW landfilled.
  • 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 pounds per cubic yard.

Source Reduction:

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


Biocycle magazine,

Environmental Research and Education Foundation,

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: 2010 Facts and Figures,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste,

Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries,

National Solid Wastes Management Association,

National Source Reduction Characterization Report, U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste,

* Data is from 2010 EPA estimates, except where noted.



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