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EPA Report: rates of municipal solid waste generation flat in the U.S.; recycling increases

| July 10, 2013

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a report on Municipal Solid Waste in the United States. The data, which was collected throughout 2011, was slightly delayed due to internal methodological changes at the EPA, so it has just been made available. The report provides fascinating insight into the inner workings of solid waste management in the U.S.

municipal waste management

A landfill in Danbury, CT in 1991. From United Nations Photo.

The EPA report looked at patterns in the municipal solid waste stream from 1960 through 2011, a wealth of data that offers valuable historical perspective.

The major takeaway: rates of municipal waste generation have risen steadily since 1960, and though we experienced a dip in waste generation during the recession beginning in 2007, it has started to level out again.

Meanwhile, recycling rates have improved. In 1960, only six percent of municipal solid waste was recycled. That number had climbed to over 34 percent by 2011.

While we’re still producing more municipal solid waste overall than we were in 1960, it’s worth considering that the population has grown substantially as well. Additionally, our increased rates of recycling are certainly promising.

A bit of background before we get any further: municipal solid waste is simply a fancy way of saying “trash” or “garbage,” and the EPA describes it as “everyday items such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food waste, newspapers, appliances, and batteries.” This category does not generally include “construction and demolition materials, municipal waste-water treatment sludges, and non-hazardous industrial wastes,” even though some of these items may end up in landfills.

municipal waste generation

From the recent EPA report on municipal solid waste generation.

According to the report, the most wasteful year on record was 2007, when we generated 257 million tons of municipal solid waste. In comparison, 2011 resulted in 250 million tons of waste—a reduction of 7 million tons.

The EPA does not consider it an accident that trends in municipal solid waste generation reversed in 2007. Reportedly, the depressed economy had a substantial impact on the amount of consumption and, therefore, municipal solid waste generation.

Still, as mentioned earlier, the brief trend reversal has started to level out, and 2011 was essentially static on municipal solid waste generation when compared to 2010.

Thus, while we can celebrate a six percent drop between 2007 and 2011 in the amount of municipal solid waste generation per person per day (down to 4.40 pounds) we can expect the possibility that these numbers will rise as the economy continues to recover.

In 2011, we recycled 66.2 million tons of municipal solid waste not including composting. That number reflects an increase of 3 million tons (or 5 percent) since the benchmark year of 2007.

Interestingly, paper and paperboard products still comprise “the largest percentage of all the materials” among 2011 municipal solid waste generation, at 28.0 percent of the total amount of solid waste. Still, these numbers are on the decline as consumers continue to rely more heavily on computers and the internet for tasks that used to require hard paper copies.

Fortunately, given the high numbers of paper and paperboard products consumed, that category makes up “the largest component of recovery” and recovery rates “increased from 16.9 percent in 1960 to 42.8 percent in 2000 to 65.6 percent in 2011.”

While 65.6 percent certainly marks a substantial increase since 1960, there is clearly room for improvement among the remaining one-third of paper and paperboard products that are not recovered.

Ultimately, with municipal solid waste generation remaining static (and threatening to rise once again), it has never been more important to focus on recycling. Look for programs in your area, and if those programs aren’t effective enough, take the initiative to campaign for recycling opportunities in your community. The future depends on it!

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Category: Blog Landing Page, Regulations

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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