Is the EPA Missing 88M Tons of MSW?

EREF’s study estimates that MSW generation is 34 percent greater than the EPA's figures.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its latest municipal solid waste study, estimating total generation, recycling, landfilling, composting and incineration volumes for the U.S. in 2014.

The EPA found that in 2014 about 258.46 million tons of municipal solid waste (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. (Full data tables can be viewed here.)

But are there’s reason to believe these numbers are far from accurate.

There have long been criticisms of the EPA’s methodology, which takes a top down approach and looks at production metrics, import and export stats and the use of estimations on product life cycles to generate an annual waste generation number. The EPA then looks at the waste managed at recycling, composting and incineration facilities and estimates the remaining balance as landfilled.

The Environmental Research and Education Foundation earlier this year published its own study of MSW in the U.S. The EREF study, in contrast with the EPA’s, is an attempt to capture data at the facility level (surveying as many as possible) and then based on its counts of facilities in the U.S., generate estimates.

The two approaches yield strikingly different results.

EREF’s study estimates that MSW generation is 34 percent greater than the EPA’s figures. For 2013, EREF puts the figure at 346.95 million tons of total MSW.

The two group’s estimates of how that waste is handled also differed. The EPA’s numbers equate to 52.6 percent of MSW being landfilled while 34.6 percent is recycled or composted. EREF’s figures, meanwhile, estimate that 64.0 percent of MSW ends up in landfills while only 27.2 percent is recycled or composted.

When it comes to waste-to-energy, however, the numbers align more closely. EREF estimated that 30.6 million tons were combusted in 2013. For 2014, the EPA put the figure at 33.1 million tons. The agreement, in part, stems from the fact that there are fewer WTE facilities to count. There were 81 facilities in operation in 2013 and 80 in 2014.

Another difference between the two reports is the count of landfills. While EREF estimates 1,540 facilities were in operation in 2013, the count in the EPA’s report for 2014 was 1,908.

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