Measure for Measure

WE'RE NOT MAKING as much garbage as we used to — or so the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., claims. The steady increase in waste generation during the past four decades has come to an end if recently released EPA trash numbers are accurate.

According to data from the EPA's annual survey of garbage generation, recycling and disposal, Americans generated less trash in 2001 than in 2000. Total tonnage was down by 2.8 million tons, and individual waste generation was down by 0.11 pounds per day.

The size of the waste stream is relative to the population and the strength of the economy. A growing population and economy will increase garbage production. An economic recession will lead to less garbage as people buy and consume fewer things. Although the population grew in 2001, the EPA blames the decline in the waste stream on a weak economy, especially in the paper industry, which had a 5.7 percent production decline in 2001.

According to the EPA, packaging still has the biggest share of the waste stream, with paper products by far the largest waste material produced. Lead-acid batteries have the highest recycling rate at 93.5 percent. However, with 20 million tons recycled, corrugated boxes are the most recycled product by weight. Food waste is the biggest item in the disposal stream with more than 25 million tons discarded in 2001.

Fewer landfills and fewer waste-to-energy facilities operated in the United States in 2001. The decline in the number of landfills is a continuation of the trend toward fewer, but larger, regional facilities.

The EPA regulates municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act's (RCRA) Subtitle D requirements. Each year, the EPA publishes the agency's most recent data on the amounts of waste generated, the composition of the waste, amounts incinerated and landfilled, and amounts and composition of materials recycled and composted. MSW within the Subtitle D definitions does not include construction and demolition (C&D) debris; hazardous, medical, and radioactive wastes; or other nonhousehold and nonbusiness refuse.

The EPA's data is just one estimate of the size of the waste stream. Other methods usually find considerably more garbage being generated and recycled. The difference can be explained by varying methodologies. EPA uses the “materials flow” approach, which it first used more than three decades ago. Materials flow uses production data by weight for materials and products in the waste stream along with estimates of imports and exports and the lifetimes of products. In addition, the EPA only estimates the amount of traditional, garden-variety MSW in its data.

In actuality, waste stream estimates based on actual tonnage data from landfills and incinerators along with recycling and composting facilities are much higher. Every other year, one magazine compiles state disposal and recycling data. Its data showed that 409 million tons of solid waste were generated in 2000 with 131 million tons or 32 percent recycled or composted. However, many of the states include nonhazardous solid waste in their data — including C&D debris and industrial waste — in addition to traditional MSW.

Finally, the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF), Alexandria, Va., surveyed all disposal facilities in the United States and estimated that approximately 545 million tons of waste were managed, of which 146 million tons or 26.7 percent were recycled or composted in 2000. The EREF data cover all nonhazardous Subtitle D solid waste that is managed outside of the generator's facility. This is the broadest universe of solid waste.

State data provide a better picture of the amount of waste managed at the state level. The EREF data show the best view of the total amount of nonhazardous waste managed in the United States. The EPA's facts are most useful and consistent for analyzing trends in individual elements of the waste stream since 1960.

Chaz Miller is director of state programs at the National Solid Wastes Management Association. Phone toll-free: (800) 424-2869 or e-mail: