An official website of the United States government.

We've made some changes to EPA.gov. If the information you are looking for is not here, you may be able to find it on the EPA Web Archive or the January 19, 2017 Web Snapshot.

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 77.9 million tons of generation in 2015 (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 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 2015 Data Tables on the Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report page.

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 2015, the recycling rate of generated packaging and containers was 53 percent. Additionally, the combustion of containers and packaging was 7.2 million tons (21.4 percent of total combustion with energy recovery) and landfills received 29.4 million tons (21.4 percent of total landfilling) in 2015.

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 2015, relating to the total number of tons of containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2015 Data on Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2014 2015
Generated 27,370 43,560 52,670 64,530 75,840 76,330 75,470 76,860 77,920
Recycled 2,870 3,350 8,490 16,780 28,870 31,500 36,680 39,590 41,330
Composted - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 150 880 8,110 9,110 8,160 6,870 7,310 7,190
Landfilled 24,500 40,060 43,300 39,640 37,860 36,670 31,920 29,960 29,400

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

This is a graph on packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2015. This graph is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

Top of Page


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 9.1 million tons in 2015, or 3.5 percent of MSW generation.

The estimated amount of glass containers recycled in 2015 was three million tons, or 33.2 percent of generation. Additionally, about 13.2 percent of the glass containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy reovery, while the remainder (53.6 percent) was landfilled.

The data below are from 1960 to 2015, relating to the total number of tons of glass containers generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2015 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 2014 2015
Generation 6,190 11,920 13,970 11,830 11,040 10,460 9,360 9,200 9,120
Recycled 100 150 750 2,620 2,880 2,590 3,130 2,990 3,030
Composted - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 50 270 1,570 1,590 1,430 1,110 1,220 1,200
Landfilled 6,090 11,720 12,950 7,640 6,570 6,440 5,120 4,990 4,890

Source: Glass Packaging Institute

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

This is a graph on glass containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2015. This graph is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

Top of Page


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 2015 (0.9 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 2015 as 1.6 million tons, or 73 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 5.4 percent of the steel containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (21.6 percent) was landfilled.

The data below are from 1960 to 2015, relating to the total number of tons of steel containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2015 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 2014 2015
Generation 4,660 5,380 3,610 2,890 2,870 2,370 2,740 2,360 2,220
Recycled 30 80 200 690 1,690 1,500 1,890 1,710 1,620
Composted - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 20 60 370 230 150 150 130 120
Landfilled 4,630 5,280 3,350 1,830 950 720 700 520 480

Source: Steel Recycling Institute

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

This is a graph on steel containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2015. This graph is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

Top of Page


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 1.8 million tons in 2015, or 0.8 percent of MSW generation. Recycling of aluminum beverage cans was 670,000 tons, or 54.9 percent of generation in 2015. Recycling data for other aluminum packaging categories were not available for 2015. Additionally, about 13 percent of the aluminum containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (50.6 percent) was landfilled.

The data below are from 1960 to 2015, relating to the total number of tons of aluminum containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2015 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 2014 2015
Generation 170 570 1,270 1,900 1,950 1,930 1,900 1,810 1,840
Recycled - 10 320 1,010 860 690 680 710 670
Composted - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - - 20 150 210 230 210 220 240
Landfilled 170 560 930 740 880 1,010 1,010 880 930

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

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

This is a graph on aluminum containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2015. This graph is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

Top of Page


Paper and Paperboard Containers and Packaging

Corrugated boxes were the largest single product category of MSW in 2015 at 31.3 million tons generated, or 11.9 percent of total generation. Corrugated boxes also represent the largest single category of recycled product, with 92.3 percent of boxes recycled out of 28.9 million tons of recycling in 2015. After recycling, the combustion of corrugated boxes was 0.5 million tons, and landfills received 1.9 million tons in 2015.

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 39.9 million tons of MSW generation in 2015, 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 2.3 million tons in 2015). The overall recycling rate for paper and paperboard packaging was 78.2 percent in 2015. Smaller proportions were combusted for energy recovery (4.3 percent) and landfilled (17.6 percent). Other paper packaging, such as cartons and sacks, is mostly recycled as mixed papers.

The data below are from 1960 to 2015, relating to the total number of tons of paper and paperboard containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2015 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 2014 2015
Generation 14,110 21,400 26,350 32,680 39,940 39,640 37,680 39,130 39,920
Recycled 2,740 3,110 7,210 12,070 21,040 23,610 26,850 29,490 31,200
Composted - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 70 380 3,500 3,670 2,920 1,920 1,890 1,710
Landfilled 11,370 18,220 18,760 17,110 15,230 13,110 8,910 7,750 7,010

Source: American Forest and Paper Association

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

This is a graph on paper and paperboard containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2015. This graph is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

Top of Page


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 2015.

EPA estimated 14.7 million tons of plastic containers and packaging were generated in 2015, 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 29.9 percent in 2015 (890,000 tons). It is estimated that recycling of HDPE natural bottles (e.g., milk and water bottles) was 230,000 tons, or 30.3 percent of generation. Overall, the amount of recycled plastic containers and packaging in 2015 was 2.2 million tons or 14.6 percent of plastic containers and packaging generated. Additionally, about 16.8 percent of the plastic containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (68.6 percent) was landfilled.

The data below are from 1960 to 2015, relating to the total number of tons of plastic containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2015 Total Plastic Containers and Packaging MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2014 2015
Generation 120 2,090 3,400 6,900 11,190 12,420 13,680 14,320 14,680
Recycled - - 10 260 1,030 1,280 1,850 2,120 2,150
Composted - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - - 70 1,130 1,960 2,020 2,090 2,390 2,460
Landfilled 120 2,090 3,320 5,510 8,200 9,120 9,740 9,810 10,070

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 graph on plastic containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2015. This graph is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

Top of Page


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 2015, the estimated amount of generated wood pallets and other wood packaging was 9.8 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 2015 was 2.7 million tons.

Additionally, about 14.3 percent of the wood containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with enegy recovery, while the remainder (58.6 percent) was landfilled.

The data below are from 1960 to 2015, relating to the total number of tons of wood packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2015 Total Wood Containers and Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2014 2015
Generation 2,000 2,070 3,940 8,180 8,610 9,230 9,770 9,680 9,770
Recycled - - - 130 1,370 1,830 2,280 2,570 2,660
Composted - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - 10 80 1,370 1,400 1,350 1,330 1,390 1,390
Landfilled 2,000 2,060 3,860 6,680 5,840 6,050 6,160 5,720 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 graph on wood containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2015. This graph is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

Top of Page


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 370,000 tons in 2015, none of which moved on to recycling or composting. Approximately 18.9 percent of the other miscellaneous packaging is combusted with energy recovery, while the majority is landfilled (81.1 percent).

The data below are from 1960 to 2015, relating to the total number of tons of other miscellaneous packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled.

1960-2015 Other Miscellaneous Packaging in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2014 2015
Generation 120 130 130 150 240 280 340 360 370
Recycled - - - - - - - - -
Composted - - - - - - - - -
Combustion with Energy Recovery - - - 20 50 60 60 70 70
Landfilled 120 130 130 130 190 220 280 290 300

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

This is a graph on other containers and packaging waste management, spanning the years 1960 to 2015. This graph is measured in tons, and shows how much waste was recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery, and landfilled.

Top of Page