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Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling

Containers and Packaging: Product-Specific Data

EPA defines containers and packaging as products that are assumed to be discarded the same year the products they contain are purchased. Containers and packaging make up a major portion of municipal solid waste (MSW), amounting to 76.7 million tons of generation in 2014 (29.7 percent of total generation). Packaging is the product used to wrap or protect goods, including food, beverages, medications and cosmetic products. Containers and packaging are used in shipping, storage the protection of products, while also providing sales and marketing benefits. This web page provides an overview of data on containers and packaging in MSW. For complete information, see Tables 22 through 29 in the 2014 Data Tables.

On this page:


Overview of Containers and Packaging

This is an image shows a visual from above of containers and packaging in crates.Container and packaging products, especially corrugated boxes, are among frequently recycled products. There is substantial recycling of many container and packaging products, especially corrugated boxes. In 2014, the recycling rate of generated packaging and containers was 51.5 percent. Additionally, the combustion of containers and packaging was 7.3 million tons (22 percent of total combustion with energy recovery) and landfills received 29.9 million tons (22 percent of total landfilling) in 2014.

Containers and packaging products in MSW are made of several materials: paper and paperboard, glass, steel, aluminum, plastics, wood, and small amounts of other materials.

1960-2014 Data on Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2012 2013 2014
Generated 27,370 43,560 52,670 64,530 75,840 76,330 74,470 75,230 75,770 76,670
Recycled 2,870 3,350 8,490 16,780 28,870 31,500 36,680 38,760 39,050 39,450
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 150 880 8,110 9,110 8,160 6,870 7,180 7,270 7,300
Landfilled 24,500 40,060 43,300 39,640 37,860 36,670 31,920 29,290 29,450 29,920

 A dash in the table means that data is not available.

 This is a picture of a chart on packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2014. This chart is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

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Glass Containers

Glass containers include beer and soft drink bottles, wine and liquor bottles, as well as bottles and jars for food and juices, cosmetics and other products. Beginning in 2009, the Glass Packaging Institute provided production data.

EPA estimated generation of these glass containers was 9.2 million tons in 2014, or 3.6 percent of MSW generation.

The estimated amount of glass containers recycling in 2014 was three million tons, or 32.5 percent of generation. The total combustion of glass containers was 1.2 million tons (3.7 percent of total MSW being combusted with energy recovery), and landfills received five million tons (3.7 percent of total MSW landfilled) in 2014.

1960-2014 Data on Glass Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1906 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2012 2013 2014
Generation 6,190 11,920 13,970 11,830 11,040 10,460 9,360 9,400 9,260 9,200
Recycled 100 150 750 2,620 2,880 2,590 3,130 3,210 3,150 2,990
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 50 270 1,570 1,590 1,430 1,110 1,220 1,210 1,220
Landfilled 6,090 11,720 12,950 7,640 6,570 6,440 5,120 4,970 4,900 4,990

Source: Glass Packaging Institute

A dash in the table means that data is not available.

This is a picture of a chart on glass containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2014. This chart is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

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Steel Containers and Packaging

The generation of steel food cans and other cans, and other steel packaging (e.g., strapping, and steel barrels and drums), totaled 2.2 million tons in 2014 (0.8 percent of total MSW generation), with most of that amount representing cans for food products. EPA based its generation estimates on data supplied by the Steel Recycling Institute (SRI).

SRI also provided recycling data for steel containers and packaging. EPA estimates the recycling of steel packaging in 2014 as 1.6 million tons, or 72.8 percent of generation. These estimates include recycling from residential sources, pre-combustion and post-combustion magnetic separation of steel cans and other ferrous products at MSW combustion facilities, and recycling of drums and barrels not suitable for reconditioning. Additionally, about 5.5 percent of steel containers and packaging waste generated was combusted for energy recovery, while the remainder (21.6 percent) was landfilled.

1960-2014 Data on Steel Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Managemeng Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2012 2013 2014
Generation 4,660 5,380 3,610 2,890 2,870 2,370 2,740 2,230 2,400 2,170
Recycled 30 80 200 690 1,690 1,500 1,890 1,610 1,740 1,580
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 20 60 370 230 150 150 130 130 150
Landfilled 4,630 5,280 3,350 1,830 950 720 700 490 530 470

Source: Steel Recycling Institute

 A dash in the table means that data is not available.

This is a picture of a chart on steel containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2014. This chart is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

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Aluminum Containers and Packaging

Aluminum containers and packaging include beer and soft drink cans (including all carbonated and non-carbonated soft drinks, tea, tonic, waters, and juice beverages), other cans, and foil and closures (including semi-rigid foil containers, caps, closures and flexible packaging). EPA estimated the amount of generation of aluminum cans using Aluminum Association data on the number of cans consumed domestically and on average can weight. The net import of unfilled aluminum cans is estimated from data collected by the Department of Commerce. Other aluminum packaging is based on Aluminum Association data.

Recycling of aluminum beverage cans was 700,000 tons, or 55.1 percent of generation in 2014. Recycling data for other aluminum packaging categories were not available for 2014. In 2014 the amount of aluminum packaging combusted was 0.2 million tons and landfills received 0.9 million tons.

1960-2014 Data on Aluminum Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2012 2013 2014
Generation 170 570 1,270 1,900 1,950 1,930 1,900 1,850 1,800 1,180
Recycled - 10 320 1,010 860 690 680 710 700 700
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - - 20 150 210 230 210 220 210 220
Landfilled 170 560 930 740 880 1,010 1,010 920 890 890

Sources: Aluminum Association; Department of Commerce; and Can Manufacturers Institute

A dash in the table means that data is not available.

This is a picture of a chart on Aluminum Containers and Packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2014. This chart is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

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Paper and Paperboard Containers and Packaging

Corrugated boxes were the largest single product category of MSW in 2014, at 30.5 million tons generated, or 11.8 percent of total generation. Corrugated boxes also represent the largest single category of recycled product, with 89.5 percent of boxes recycled out of 27.3 million tons of recycling in 2014. After recycling, the combustion of corrugated boxes was 0.6 million tons and landfills received 2.6 million tons in 2014.

Other paper and paperboard packaging in MSW includes milk and juice cartons and other products packaged in table top cartons and liquid food aseptic cartons, folding cartons (e.g., cereal boxes, frozen food boxes, some department store boxes), bags and sacks, wrapping papers, and other paper and paperboard packaging (primarily set-up boxes such as shoe, cosmetic, and candy boxes). Overall, paper and paperboard containers and packaging totaled 39.1 million tons of MSW generation in 2014, or 15.1 percent of total generation.

While recycling of corrugated boxes is by far the largest component of paper packaging recycling, smaller amounts of other paper packaging products also enter the recycling stream (estimated at about 2.2 million tons in 2014). The overall recycling rate for paper and paperboard packaging was 75.4 percent in 2014. Smaller proportions were combusted for energy recovery (4.8 percent) and landfilled (19.8 percent). Other paper packaging, such as cartons and sacks, is mostly recycled as mixed papers.

1960-2014 Total Paper and Paperboard Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2012 2013 2014
Generation 14,110 21,400 26,350 32,680 39,940 39,640 37,680 38,010 38,560 39,130
Recycled 2,740 3,110 7,210 12,070 21,040 23,610 26,850 28,920 28,950 29,490
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 70 380 3,500 3,670 2,920 1,920 1,790 1,910 1,890
Landfilled 11,370 18,220 18,760 17,110 15,230 13,110 8,910 7,300 7,700 7,750

Source: American Forest and Paper Association

 A dash in the table means that data is not available.

This is a picture of a chart on paper and paperboard containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960-2014. This chart is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery & landfilled.

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Plastic Containers and Packaging

Packaging products are comprised of different plastic resins. Some of these include polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soft drink and water bottles, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) milk and water jugs, film products (including bags and sacks) made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and other containers and packaging (including clamshells, trays, caps, lids, egg cartons, loose fill, produce baskets, coatings and closures) made up of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP) and other resins. EPA used data on resin sales from the American Chemistry Council to estimate the generation of plastic containers and packaging in 2014.

EPA estimated 14.3 million tons of plastic containers and packaging were generated in 2014, approximately 5.5 percent of MSW generation. (Plastic packaging as a category in this analysis does not include single-service plates and cups and trash bags, which are classified as nondurable goods).

EPA also estimated the recycling of plastic products based on data published annually by the American Chemistry Council, as well as additional industry data. The recycling rate of PET bottles and jars was 31.2 percent in 2014 (910,000 tons). It is estimated that recycling of HDPE natural bottles (e.g., milk and water bottles) was 230,000 tons, or 29.5 percent of generation. Overall, the amount of recycled plastic containers and packaging in 2014 was 2.1 million tons or 14.8 percent of plastic containers and packaging generated. The amount of combusted plastic packaging was 2.4 million tons (7.2 percent of total MSW combusted with energy recovery), and landfills received 9.8 million tons of plastic containers and packaging in 2014 (7.2 percent of total MSW landfilled).

1960-2014 Total Plastic Containers and Packaging MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2012 2013 2014
Generation 120 2,090 3,400 6,900 11,190 12,420 13,680 13,780 13,980 14,320
Recycled - - 10 260 1,030 1,280 1,850 1,900 2,040 2,120
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - - 70 1,130 1,960 2,020 2,090 2,330 2,370 2,390
Landfilled 120 2,090 3,320 5,510 8,200 9,120 9,740 9,550 9,570 9,810

Sources: American Chemistry Council and National Assocation for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).

 A dash in the table means that data is not available.

This is a picture of a chart on plastic containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2014. This chart is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

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Wood Packaging

Wood packaging includes mostly wood pallets, as well as wood crates. Data on the production of wood packaging are derived from market research from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the United States Department of Agriculture's Forest Service Southern Research Station. In 2014, the estimated amount of generated wood pallets and other wood packaging was 9.7 million tons, totaling 3.7 percent of total MSW generation. The amount of wood pallet recycling (usually by chipping for uses such as mulch or bedding material, but excluding wood combusted as fuel) in 2014 was 2.6 million tons.

Accounting for pallet reuse and recycling, the estimated amount of combusted wood packaging was 1.4 million tons (4.2 percent of total MSW combusted with energy recovery) and landfills received 5.7 million tons (4.2 percent of total MSW landfilled) in 2014.

1960-2014 Total Wood Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2012 2013 2014
Generation 2,000 2,070 3,940 8,180 8,610 9,230 9,770 9,610 94,10 9,680
Recycled - - - 130 1,370 1,830 2,280 2,140 2,470 2,570
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 10 80 1,370 1,400 1,350 1,330 1,420 1,370 1,390
Landfilled 2,000 2,060 3,860 6,680 5,840 6,050 6,160 5,780 5,570 5,720

Sources: USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

 A dash in the table means that data is not available.

This is a picture of a chart on wood containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2014. This chart is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

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Other Miscellaneous Packaging

EPA included estimates for some other miscellaneous packaging, such as bags made of textiles and small amounts of leather. These latter quantities are not well documented, but the Agency estimated that amount of generation was 360,000 tons in 2014, none of which moved on to recycling or composting. Approximately 19.4 percent of the other miscellaneous packaging is combusted for energy recovery, while the majority is landfilled (80.6 percent).

1960-2014 Other Miscellaneous Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2012 2013 2014
Generation 120 130 130 150 240 280 340 350 360 360
Recycled - - - - - - - - - -
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - - - 20 50 60 60 70 70 70
Landfilled 120 130 130 130 190 220 280 280 290 290

A dash in the table means that data is not available.

This is a picture of a chart on other containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2014. This chart is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

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