Bringing it Together

EVEN THOUGH WE'RE STILL TALKING about it, the concept of integrated solid waste management is not new. More than 15 years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began touting the concept, which promotes using a combination of complementary approaches to handle the waste stream. Source reduction, recycling, incineration and landfilling all can potentially have a positive impact on the local municipal waste management systems and can work together to protect human health and the environment.

A community can determine its most effective combination of waste-management methods by examining the amount and composition of its municipal solid waste (MSW), cost, environmental consideration, infrastructure, practicality, political realities and the community's goals. There is not a universal, step-by-step method for selecting and developing integrated solid waste management systems. However, EPA and others are making strides in developing life-cycle models that allow communities to scientifically evaluate the costs and environmental burdens of integrated approaches.

According to EPA's latest data (2000), more than 55 million tons of MSW was prevented from entering the waste stream that year. The amount of waste reduced yearly has steadily increased since 1992, when only 0.6 million tons were reduced or reused. Of the 55 million tons prevented in 2000, 25 million tons came from organic materials, particularly yard trimmings. The next-largest component prevented was containers and packages (28 percent) followed by non-durable goods such as newspapers and clothing (17 percent) and durable goods such as appliances, furniture and tires (10 percent).

After source reductions, communities typically manage MSW using three methods: recycling, incinerating and landfilling. According to EPA's most recent data (2003), 72.3 million tons (30.6 percent) of the national waste stream were recycled and composted, 33.1 million tons (14.0 percent incinerated and 130.8 million tons (55.4 percent) landfilled.

The amount and management of MSW has changed significantly since EPA started collecting data. Only 88.1 million tons of MSW were generated in 1960. Of this amount, 5.6 million tons (6 percent) were recovered, 27.0 million tons (31 percent) incinerated and 55.5 million tons (63 percent) landfilled. None of the MSW generated in 1960 was composted.

Waste recovery continues to rise each year, with recycling rates increasing by almost 900 percent and composting by about 300 percent during the past four decades. Incineration amounts have remained relatively constant from 1960 to 2003, with 1980 representing the lowest year at 13.7 million tons. The amount of MSW landfilled increased from 55.5 million tons in 1960 to a high of 131.8 million tons in 1999. After 1999, the amount of MSW landfilled declined slightly to 128.3 in 2001.

Ed Repa is the director of environmental programs for the Washington-based National Solid Wastes Management Association. He can be reached by e-mailing