Americans are Producing Less Waste, Recycling More, According to EPA Report

Washington, DC - The United States Environmental Protection Agency recently released its report "Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2000 Facts and Figures." The report uses the latest figures collected during the 2000 Census.

This report is the latest publication in a series of publications describing the national waste stream based on data collected from 1960 through 2000. The historical perspective provided by the data is useful for establishing trends in types of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated and in the ways that MSW is managed.

Municipal solid waste consists of everyday items such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances and batteries. Not included are materials that also may be disposed of in landfills, but are not generally considered MSW, such as construction and demolition debris, municipal wastewater treatment sludges and non-hazardous industrial waste.

According to the report, in the United States approximately 231.9 million tons of MSW was generated in 2000, an increase of 0.9 million tons from 1999. This is an increase of only 0.3 percent from 1999 to 2000. Excluding composting, the amount of MSW recycled increased to 53.4 million tons, an increase of 3.3 million tons from 1999 or a 6.6 percent increase in tons recycled. The tons recovered for recycling (including composting) rose to 69.9 million tons in 2000, up from 64.8 million tons in 1999. The recovery rate for recycling (including composting) was 30.1 percent in 2000, up from 28.1 percent from the previous year.

Municipal solid waste generation declined to 4.5 pounds per person per day in 2000 and the recycling rate was 1.4 pounds per person per day.

The report stated that the economy has a strong impact on consumption and waste generation. Waste generation continued to increase through the 1990s as economic growth continued to be strong. Between 1998 and 1999, paper and paperboard generation increased 4.9 percent. Total MSW generation increased only slightly between 1999 and 2000 and this can be attributed to a great extent, to a decline in production of paper and paperboard of 1.7 percent. (Paper industry production is very sensitive to economic factors, and 2000 was not a good year for the industry.) At the same time, recovery of products (including paper and paperboard) increased substantially in 2000, and therefore a recycling rate of 30.1 percent was achieved in spite of the slowdown in the economy. The paper and paperboard recovery, as a percent of the generation, increased from 40.9 percent to 45.4 percent in 2000. The majority of the increase in recovery came from increased exports in 2000.


Over the last few decades, the generation, recycling and disposal of MSW have changed substantially, according to the report. Municipal solid waste generation has continued to increase from 1960, when it was 88 million tons. The generation rate in 1960 was just 2.7 pounds per person per day; it grew to 3.7 pounds in 1980 and reached 4.5 pounds in 1990. It stabilized at 4.5 pounds in 2000 after increasing in the 1990s.

Over time, the recycling rates have increased from 10 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 1990 to 30 percent in 2000. Disposal of MSW decreased from 90 percent in 1980 to 70 percent in 2000. This compares to 73 percent in 1999.


The report stated that recovery of containers and packaging was almost 39 percent. About 55 percent of all aluminum cans were recovered and 58 percent of steel packaging (mostly cans) were recovered. Paper and paperboard containers and packaging were recovered at a rate of 56 percent. Approximately 26 percent of glass containers were recovered, while about 6 percent of wood packaging (mostly wood pallets removed from service) were recovered. About nine percent of plastic containers and packaging were recovered, mostly soft drink, milk and water bottles.

Overall recovery of non-durable goods, mostly newspaper and high-grade office papers, was 28.8 percent in 2000. Newspapers constituted the largest portion of this recovery with 58 percent recovered for recycling. An estimated 54 percent of high-grade office papers and 32 percent of magazines were recovered in 2000. In each of these categories, recovery increased from 1999 to 2000.

Other paper products recovered included standard (third-class) mail at 32 percent, directories at 18 percent and commercial printed products at 23 percent. The nondurable goods category also includes clothing and other textile products-16 percent of these products were recovered for recycling or export in 2000.

Durable goods were recovered at a rate of 16.6 percent in 2000. Non-ferrous metals, other than aluminum, had the highest recovery rate at 67 percent, due to the high rate of lead recovery from lead-acid batteries. The lead-acid battery recovery rate was 96.4 percent. Recovery of steel in all durable goods was 27.5 percent, with high rates of recovery from appliances (73.5 percent) and other miscellaneous durable goods. Twenty-six percent of rubber in tires was recovered for recycling. Other tires were retreaded or shredded for tire-derived fuel.

Management of MSW

The EPA's integrated waste management hierarchy includes the following three components listed in order of preference:

•Source reduction (or waste prevention), including reuse of products and onsite, or backyard, composting of yard trimmings.

•Recycling, including offsite or community and composting.

•Disposal, including waste combustion (preferably with energy recovery) and landfilling.

Although EPA encourages the use of strategies that emphasize the top of the hierarchy whenever possible, all three components remain important in an integrated waste management system.

The report said much of the nation's increase in waste generation in the 1990s was due to the booming economy. Americans found themselves with additional dollars in their pockets after paying expenses. As a result, the U.S. became a nation of consumers with a need for disposal of MSW. However, the U.S. made progress in the areas of waste reduction and reuse, with 55 million tons of source reduction in 2000. Had this source reduction not occurred, waste generation in 2000 would have risen from the actual level of 232 million tons, to 287 million tons. Source reduction avoided an increase of nearly 25 percent.