Profiles in Garbage: Latest EPA Data

The recession is over and population is up, but total and per capita waste generation are down.

Chaz Miller, Semi-retired, 40-year veteran of the waste and recycling industry

August 1, 2013

3 Min Read
Profiles in Garbage: Latest EPA Data

Municipal solid waste (MSW) is the stuff we have used and no longer need. EPA’s MSW data does not include construction and demolition 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. Based on EPA data, waste generation and disposal continue to decline while recycling and composting continue to increase.

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.


Municipal Solid Waste 2011 Facts*


  • 250.42 million tons.

  • 1,606 pounds (lbs.) per person per year.

  • 4.40 lbs. per person per day.

  • Food waste, yard trimmings, corrugated boxes, ferrous metals in durable goods and wood packaging are the largest items in MSW before recycling.


  • 86.9 million tons, a 34.7% recovery rate.

  • 557.8 lbs. per person per year.

  • 1.53 lbs. per person per day.

Recycled (excludes composting):

  • 66.2 million tons, a 37.5% recycling rate.

  • 424.9 lbs. per person per year

  • 1.16 lbs. per person per day.

  • Corrugated boxes, non-groundwood printed paper (office paper, etc.) 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.


  • 20.7 million tons of yard and food waste.

  • 8.3% composting rate for all MSW.

  • 57.3% composting rate for yard waste.

  • 3.9% composting rate for food waste.

  • 132.9 lbs. per person per year.

  •  0.36 lbs. per person per day.

Burned or Landfilled:

  • 163.5 million tons or 65.3% of MSW.

  •  29.3 million tons burned for energy.

  • 134.2 million tons landfilled.

  • 1,049.4 lbs. per person per year.

  • 2.88 lbs. 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 shrink the waste stream.

  • Paper generation is down significantly due to the Internet and computerization.

  • Plastic generation is up due to lightweighting.



Biocycle magazine,

Environmental Research and Education Foundation,

Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries,

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2011,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste,

National Solid Wastes Managment Association,

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


*Data is from 2011 EPA estimates, except where noted.



About the Author(s)

Chaz Miller

Semi-retired, 40-year veteran of the waste and recycling industry, National Waste & Recycling Association

Chaz Miller is a longtime veteran of the waste and recycling industry.

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