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14 Charts from the EPA’s Latest MSW Estimates

The EPA found that in 2014 about 258 million tons of MSW were generated. More than 89 million tons of MSW were recycled and composted, equivalent to a 34.6 percent recycling rate.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its annual analysis of municipal solid waste (MSW) figures with its annual Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts Sheet.

The EPA found that in 2014 about 258 million tons of MSW were generated. More than 89 million tons of MSW were recycled and composted, equivalent to a 34.6 percent recycling rate. In addition, more than 33 million tons of MSW were combusted with energy recovery and 136 million tons were landfilled. (Detailed numbers are available in the EPA’s data tables.)

In addition, the EPA found that 89.5 percent of corrugated boxes were recycled. About 61 percent of yard trimmings were composted. Organic materials such as paper and paperboard, yard trimmings and food were the largest component of MSW generated. Paper and paperboard accounted for more than 26 percent, and yard trimmings and food accounted for another 28.2 percent.

Plastics comprised about 13 percent of MSW; rubber, leather and textiles accounted for more than nine percent; and metals made up nine percent. Wood followed at more than six percent, and glass more than four percent. Other miscellaneous wastes made up approximately three percent of the MSW generated in 2014.

Recycling and composting of MSW results in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction. In 2014, the 89 million tons of MSW recycled and composted provided an annual reduction of more than 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, comparable to the annual emissions from more than 38 million passenger cars.

The EPA's methodology has long been criticized. Most recently, the Environment Research and Environmental Foundation (EREF) has put out its own estimates of MSW volumes and come to a number that's much larger than the EPA's estimate. For example, EREF estimated the actual volume of MSW to be 347 million tons in 2013.

Here are 14 charts with insights from the latest EPA data.

The EPA's latest report showed a small increase in total volume of MSW generated in the U.S. compared to 2013. It counted 3.5 million more tons. That increase was negligible in terms of the per capita rate, which remained at 4.4 pounds per person per day.

The recycling rate rose slightly from 2013, going from 34.3 percent to 34.6 percent. That put the number in 2014 nearly where it was in 2012, when it was calculated to be 34.2 percent. Overall, Americans composted and recycled 89.4 million tons of MSW last year, according to the EPA's calculations.Going back to 1960, the total volume of MSW has more than doubled. The composition has also evolved. Containers and packaging have long been the largest part of the MSW stream. The volume of durable goods in the MSW stream has slowly grown. In fact, 2014 is the first year in which the volume of durable goods was larger than the volume of non-durable goods in the MSW stream.

Lead-acid batteries continue to be the product with the highest recycling rate in the U.S. The EPA estimates 98.9 percent of lead acid batteries were recycled in 2013. There's been a notable uptick in the recycling rate for consumer electronics. In 2012, the recycling rate for consumer electronics was 29.2 percent. In 2014, it was up to 41.7 percent.

Paper remains the largest component of the MSW stream, but the volume of paper has declined from a peak of  nearly 90 million tons at the turn of the century to less than 70 million tons in 2014.

After peaking at about 143 million tons in 2014, the volume of waste going to landfills has moderated in the past 10 years. In 2014, the EPA estimates about 136 million tons of waste was landfilled. In contrast, about 89 million tons was recycled or composted. The remaining waste was combusted. 

More than one-quarter of the MSW waste stream was paper and paperboard in 2014. The next largest components of the stream were food waste, yard trimmings and plastics.

When looking at the 89 million tons of materials that were recycled or composted, paper and paperboard accounts for nearly half of that volume. Yard trimmings account for almost a quarter. The remaining materials combined account for the last 25 percent. 

In looking at what ends up in landfills, the EPA found that food waste is the largest component of the waste stream. Overall, food waste accounts for more than 20 percent of the 136 million tons that went to landfill in 2014. The next biggest components were plastics and paper and paperboard.

In looking at specific materials, the recovery rate on glass was about 26 percent in 2014. Of the 11.48 million tons of glass generated, 2.99 million tons were recovered. The remaining volume was landfilled.

When it comes to metals, the recovery rate in 2014 was about 34 percent. In all, 7.9 million tons of metals were recovered out of the 23.26 million tons of metal waste generated.

 The volume of plastic waste has grown dramatically in the past 50 years and in 2014, it accounted for 33.3 million tons. Of that, just 3.17 million tons were recovered. 

The volume of paper waste has declined by more than 20 million tons since the turn of the century. Meanwhile, the percent recovered has increased. That means only about 24 million tons of paper ended up in landfills in 2014 compared to more than 50 million tons in 1999. 

For the past two years, the EPA has begun tracking construction and demolition (C&D) waste in addition to MSW waste. Overall, the U.S. generated 534 million tons of C&D waste in 2014. The biggest components of that were Portland cement concrete and asphalt concrete.

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