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Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling

Frequent Questions regarding EPA’s Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling

Below are frequent questions and corresponding answers about EPA's Facts and Figures About Materials, Waste and Recycling.

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What are the most recent Facts and Figures data? From what year?

The most recent data for all materials and products are from 2018.

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What's the difference between a material and a product?

EPA uses two categories to characterize the 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in 2018. The first is by material. This category includes paper and paperboard, glass, metals, plastics, food, yard trimmings, rubber and leather, textiles, wood, and other. The second is by these major product categories, which include durable goodsnondurable goods and containers and packaging.

The distinction between products and materials is that products are manufactured out of materials. Also, products are what people buy and handle, such as newspapers, bottles and cans. A material is a raw item before it is shaped into something else, such as a piece of leather before it is made into a glove. EPA tracks products to learn how people are consuming, using and discarding materials. This information allows the Agency to target activities that will ultimately maximize source reduction, recycling and composting of materials.

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What's the difference between a nondurable good, a durable good, and containers and packaging?

  • Durable goods last three years or more;
  • Nondurable goods generally last less than three years; and
  • Containers and packaging are assumed to be discarded the same year the products they contain are purchased.

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How many cell phones and computers are generated and recycled each year?

The Advancing Sustainable Materials Management (SMM): Facts and Figures 2018 does not currently break down electronic waste by category. The category “Selected Consumer Electronics,” which includes information on the recycling rate for consumer electronics such as TVs, VCRs, DVD players, cell phones, video cameras, fax machines, telephones and computer equipment, has consistently tracked this same subset of electronics throughout the report’s history starting in 2000.

According to this report, an estimated 2.7 million tons of consumer electronics goods were generated in 2018. Of this, 1.04 million tons of selected consumer electronics were collected for recycling for a 38.5 percent recovery rate.

The Electronics section of the Durable Goods page has information on generation, recycling, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling for selected consumer electronics.

The purpose of this report is to track generation and recycling rates. The report does not provide insight into policies and behaviors that influence the trends.

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How much packaging is generated, recycled, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled each year in the United States? What trends exist?

For general information on containers and packaging (on what is generated, recycled, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled), see the Containers and Packaging page of this website. Figures 17 and 18 in the Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2018 Data Tables also provide useful information. Figure 17 summarizes containers and packaging materials (glass, metals, plastic, etc.) and Figure 18 summarizes containers and packaging items (corrugated cardboard, steel packaging, aluminum packaging, PET bottles and jars, etc.).

Some examples of recent trends in containers and packaging recycling are found on Table 25 of the 2018 Data Tables. Corrugated boxes were recycled at 67.3 percent in 2000. This rose to 96.5 percent in 2018. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) bottles were recycled at a rate of 22.1 percent in 2000 and 29.1 percent in 2018.

Information on recycling of Styrofoam packaging can be found in Table 8 of the 2018 Data Tables. Styrofoam containers are known as polystyrene (PS) containers. In 2018, 80 thousand tons were generated, and a negligible amount (less than 5,000 tons) was recycled in the United States. Additionally, 140 thousand tons of polystyrene bags, sacks, and wraps and 330 thousand tons of other packaging were generated in 2018 with 20 thousand tons recycled (3.6 percent of PS in containers and packaging).

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How much clothing is generated, recycled and disposed of each year?

The Clothing and Footwear section on the Nondurable Goods page of this website shows that 13 million tons of clothing and footwear were generated in 2018. "Generated" means having reached end-of-life—ready for recycling, combustion with energy recovery or landfilling. Reuse occurs before generation, and EPA does not have estimates for the reuse of textiles, such as from donations or to groups such as Goodwill.

Table 19 in the Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2018 Data Tables shows that 13 percent of clothing and footwear was recycled in 2018. These numbers do not include the amount of textiles donated or resold in the United States for reuse. Table 20 of the 2018 Data Tables shows that 2.2 million tons of clothing and footwear were combusted with energy recovery in 2018. Table 21 of the 2018 Data Tables shows that 9.1 million tons of clothing and footwear were landfilled in 2018.

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What percentage of plastic or plastic bottles are recycled? What is the percentage of paper cartons recycled? And the percentage of aluminum cans recycled?

Nationwide, in 2018, our most current data shows the actual recycling rate for some key beverage containers was:

  • Glass beer and soft drink bottles—39.6 percent
  • Glass wine and liquor bottles—39.8 percent
  • Aluminum beer and soft drink cans—50.4 percent
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles and jars—29.1 percent
  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic natural bottles—29.3 percent

The figures above come from Table 25 of the Advancing Sustainable Materials Management (SMM): Facts and Figures 2018 Data Tables.

EPA keeps its data on the generation, recycling, composting, energy recovery and landfilling of materials and products, such as beverage containers, in weight, rather than in volume. The amount generated is the amount available for recycling, composting, energy recovery and landfilling.

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What are the overall findings of the Facts and Figures Report?

In the United States in 2018, 292.4 million tons (U.S. short tons unless specified) of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) (trash) were generated. About 94 million tons of MSW were recycled and composted, resulting in a 32.1 percent recycling rate. An additional 17.7 million tons was managed through other food pathways (see the Food: Material-Specific Data web page.)

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Approximately how many shopping bags do Americans consume every year? How many of those bags are recycled?

EPA collects information on solid waste generation, recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling for the Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures report. The 2018 Data Tables include the following information:

We have statistics for plastic bags, sacks and wraps (which includes shrink wrap), as a category. In the 2018 Data Tables, Table 22 shows that about 4,200,000 tons (4.20 million tons) of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were generated in 2018, while Table 24 shows that 420,000 tons (0.42 million tons) were recycled. Table 26 shows that 740,000 tons (0.74 million tons) of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were combusted with energy recovery. Table 28 shows that 3,040,000 (3.04 million tons) of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were landfilled. The recycling rate for plastic bags, sacks and wraps was 10 percent in 2018 (Table 25).

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How much food waste is generated in America?

EPA and USDA have been working on the issue of sustainable management of food since the 1990s.  In 2018, more than 63 million tons of food waste was generated from residential, commercial, and institutional sectors, with 4.1 percent diverted from landfills and combustion facilities for composting and another 28.1 percent diverted through other food management pathways (animal feed, codigestion/anaerobic digestion, bio-based materials/biochemical processing, donation, land application and sewer/wastewater treatment). While wasted food generation estimates increased in 2018 due to changes in methodology, the percentage of food landfilled is lower than previous estimates: 55.9% in 2018, compared to 75.31% in 2017. Still, EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills and combustion facilities than any other single material in our everyday trash, constituting 24 percent of the amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) landfilled and 22 percent of the amount of MSW combusted with energy recovery.. Since food is a major contributor to the amount of methane generated by and released from landfills, and since landfills are one of the top sources of methane emissions, taking action on wasted food will help reduce the amount of methane that is released. The most recent data EPA has on the generation and management of wasted food in America is from 2018. See the Material-Specific page on Food for more information. The most recent data also is captured in the “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report.”

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Where can I download the summary data tables and view the research memos?

Click this link to see how to download the summary data tables and view the research memos.

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Is the municipal solid waste data in the Facts and Figures analysis pre-consumer or post-consumer?

All of the municipal solid waste data in the Facts and Figures analysis is post-consumer waste. Sources of MSW include residential waste, including waste from single and multi-family housing, as well as waste from commercial and institutional locations, such as restaurants, grocery stores, other businesses, schools, hospitals, and industrial facilities. Industrial facility waste includes waste from sources such as offices, cafeterias and packaging, but not process waste.

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How is textiles generation calculated?

The information on textiles includes generation, which is the weight of materials and products as they enter the waste management system. After calculating total generation, EPA estimates several pathways, such as recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling, to understand how waste is managed. Reuse, such as the reuse of clothing through donation to secondhand stores, occurs before generation, so it is not included in the generation or recycling estimates. EPA currently does not have an estimate for the amount of textiles reused.

The textiles material-specific web page includes textiles such as those in furniture. On another page in this website, there is a section on clothing and footwear and a section on towels, sheets and pillowcases.

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Is the data in the Facts and Figures analysis provided in U.S. (short) tons or metric tons?

The data in the Facts and Figures analysis is provided in U.S. (short) tons unless otherwise noted. One ton equals 2,000 pounds.

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