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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 80.1 million tons of generation in 2017 (29.9 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 the shipping, storage and protection of products. They also provide sales and marketing benefits.

This web page provides an overview of data on containers and packaging in municipal solid waste (MSW). For more comprehensive information on this category of MSW, see the 2016 and 2017 Data Tables on the Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report page.

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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 2017, the recycling rate of generated packaging and containers was 50.1 percent. Additionally, the combustion of containers and packaging was 7.9 million tons (23 percent of total combustion with energy recovery) and landfills received 32.1 million tons (23 percent of total landfilling) in 2017.

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.

The data below are from 1960 to 2017, relating to the total number of tons of containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2017 Data on Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2015 2016 2017
Generated 27,370 43,560 52,670 64,530 75,840 76,330 75,470 77,920 79,430 80,080
Recycled 2,870 3,350 8,490 16,780 28,870 31,500 36,680 41,490 41,230 40,090
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 150 880 8,110 9,110 8,160 6,870 7,160 7,480 7,860
Landfilled 24,500 40,060 43,300 39,640 37,860 36,670 31,920 29,270 30,720 32,130

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

 

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Glass Containers and Packaging

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 that the generation of these glass containers was 8.9 million tons in 2017, or 3.4 percent of MSW generation.

The estimated amount of glass containers recycled in 2017 was three million tons, or 33.9 percent of generation. Additionally, about 13 percent of the glass containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (53.1 percent) was landfilled.

The data below are from 1960 to 2017, relating to the total number of tons of glass containers generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2017 Data on Glass Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2015 2016 2017
Generation 6,190 11,920 13,970 11,830 11,040 10,460 9,360 9,120 9,090 8,930
Recycled 100 150 750 2,620 2,880 2,590 3,130 3,190 3,160 3,030
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 50 270 1,570 1,590 1,430 1,110 1,170 1,160 1,160
Landfilled 6,090 11,720 12,950 7,640 6,570 6,440 5,120 4,760 4,770 4,740

Source: Glass Packaging Institute

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

 

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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 two million tons in 2017 (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 2017 as 1.5 million tons, or 73.1 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 percent of the steel containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (21.9 percent) was landfilled.

The data below are from 1960 to 2017, relating to the total number of tons of steel containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2017 Data on Steel Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2015 2016 2017
Generation 4,660 5,380 3,610 2,890 2,870 2,370 2,740 2,220 2,140 2,010
Recycled 30 80 200 690 1,690 1,500 1,890 1,620 1,550 1,470
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 20 60 370 230 150 150 120 120 100
Landfilled 4,630 5,280 3,350 1,830 950 720 700 480 470 440

Source: Steel Recycling Institute

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

 

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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.

EPA estimated the generation of aluminum packaging at 1.9 million tons in 2017, or 0.8 percent of MSW generation. Recycling of aluminum beverage cans was 620,000 tons, or 49.2 percent of generation in 2017. Recycling data for other aluminum packaging categories were not available for 2017. Additionally, about 13.8 percent of the aluminum containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (53.4 percent) was landfilled.

The data below are from 1960 to 2017, relating to the total number of tons of aluminum containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2017 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 2015 2016 2017
Generation 170 570 1,270 1,900 1,950 1,930 1,900 1,840 1,900 1,890
Recycled - 10 320 1,010 860 690 680 670 620 620
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - - 20 150 210 230 210 240 240 260
Landfilled 170 560 930 740 880 1,010 1,010 930 1,040 1,010

Sources: Aluminum Association are used for generation of aluminum packaging and recycling of aluminum cans. Aluminum recycling represents aluminum cans only

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

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Paper and Paperboard Containers and Packaging

Corrugated boxes were the largest single product category of MSW in 2017 at 32.5 million tons generated, or 12.2 percent of total generation. Corrugated boxes also represent the largest single product of recycled paper and paperboard containers and packaging. In 2017, approximately 28.8 million tons of corrugated boxes were recycled out of 30.1 million tons of total paper and paperboard recycling. The recycling rate for corrugated boxes was 88.4 percent. After recycling, the combustion of corrugated boxes was 0.7 million tons, and landfills received three million tons in 2017.

Other paper and paperboard packaging in MSW includes milk and juice cartons and other products packaged in gable 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 41.1 million tons of MSW generation in 2017, or 15.3 percent of total generation.

While the 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 1.3 million tons in 2017). The overall recycling rate for paper and paperboard packaging was 73.3 percent in 2017. Smaller proportions were combusted for energy recovery (5.3 percent) and landfilled (21.5 percent). Other paper packaging, such as cartons and sacks, is mostly recycled as mixed papers.

The data below are from 1960 to 2017, relating to the total number of tons of paper and paperboard containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2017 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 2015 2016 2017
Generation 14,110 21,400 26,350 32,680 39,940 39,640 37,680 39,920 39,990 41,060
Recycled 2,740 3,110 7,210 12,070 21,040 23,610 26,850 31,200 30,830 30,080
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 70 380 3,500 3,670 2,920 1,920 1,710 1,790 2,160
Landfilled 11,370 18,220 18,760 17,110 15,230 13,110 8,910 7,010 7,370 8,820

Source: American Forest and Paper Association

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

 

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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 2017.

EPA estimated 14.5 million tons of plastic containers and packaging were generated in 2017, approximately 5.3 percent of MSW generation. (Plastic packaging as a category in this analysis does not include single-service plates and cups, and trash bags, both of 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 29.1 percent in 2017 (860,000 tons). It is estimated that recycling of HDPE natural bottles (e.g., milk and water bottles) was 240,000 tons, or 31.2 percent of generation. Overall, the amount of recycled plastic containers and packaging in 2017 was 1.9 million tons or 13 percent of plastic containers and packaging generated. Additionally, about 17 percent of the plastic containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (69.9 percent) was landfilled.

The data below are from 1960 to 2017, relating to the total number of tons of plastic containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2017 Total Plastic Containers and Packaging MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2015 2016 2017
Generation 120 2,090 3,400 6,900 11,190 12,420 13,680 14,680 14,510 14,490
Recycled - - 10 260 1,030 1,280 1,850 2,150 2,130 1,890
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - - 70 1,130 1,960 2,020 2,090 2,460 2,430 2,470
Landfilled 120 2,090 3,320 5,510 8,200 9,120 9,740 10,070 9,950 10,130

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

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

 

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Wood Containers and Packaging

Wood packaging includes mostly wood pallets, as well as wood crates. Data on the production of wood packaging are derived from purchased market research and research from the Center for Forest Products at Virginia Tech and the United States Department of Agriculture's Forest Service Southern Research Station. In 2017, the estimated amount of generated wood pallets and other wood packaging was 11.4 million tons, totaling 4.2 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 2017 was three million tons.

Additionally, about 14.4 percent of the wood containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (59.1 percent) was landfilled.

The data below are from 1960 to 2017, relating to the total number of tons of wood packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2017 Total Wood Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2015 2016 2017
Generation 2,000 2,070 3,940 8,180 8,610 9,230 9,770 9,770 11,450 11,350
Recycled - - - 130 1,370 1,830 2,280 2,660 2,940 3,000
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 10 80 1,370 1,400 1,350 1,330 1,390 1,670 1,640
Landfilled 2,000 2,060 3,860 6,680 5,840 6,050 6,160 5,720 6,840 6,710

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

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

 

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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 350,000 tons in 2017, none of which moved on to recycling or composting. Approximately 20 percent of the other miscellaneous packaging was combusted with energy recovery, while the majority was landfilled (80 percent).

The data below are from 1960 to 2017, relating to the total number of tons of other miscellaneous packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2017 Other Miscellaneous Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2015 2016 2017
Generation 120 130 130 150 240 280 340 370 350 350
Recycled - - - - - - - - - -
Composted - - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - - - 20 50 60 60 70 70 70
Landfilled 120 130 130 130 190 220 280 300 280 280

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

 

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