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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's the difference between a material and a product?

    EPA uses two categories to characterize the 258 million tons of MSW generated in 2014. The first is by material. This category includes paper and paperboard, glass, metals, plastics, food, yard trimmings, rubber and leather, textiles, wood, and others. The second is by these major product categories, which include durable goods, nondurable 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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  • Why does EPA say that the recycling rate is going up while others claim recycling is down as a whole?

    Although overall the nation’s recycling rate has plateaued recently, looking over the longer term, the trend is positive. For example, the recycling rate has increased from 16 percent in 1990 to the present rate of 34.6 percent. In addition, there are indicators in our current data that improvements are possible given the right circumstances. EPA and many other stakeholders are working to bring those improvements to fruition. For example, the recycling rates of some specific materials have increased from 2013 to 2014, including yard trimmings, selected consumer electronics, and food. With the largest category of wastes disposed of being food and organics, initiatives like EPA's Food Recovery Challenge are helping lead the way to improved diversion rates. Another positive indicator is that leading municipalities have reached very high recycling rates, including Seattle with a recycling rate of 57 percent, San Diego with a recycling rate of 68 percent, and San Francisco with a recycling rate of almost 80 percent.

    Finally, a positive statistic is that the per capita generation rate of municipal solid waste has gone down. In fact, the 2014 generation rate of 4.4 pounds per person is one of the lowest rates since before 1990. EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management Program and the Waste Management Hierarchy highlight the benefits of source reduction and reuse in order to reduce waste generation and minimize negative environmental impacts from the goods and services we all use.

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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 2014 Report 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 3.36 million tons of consumer electronics goods were generated in 2014. Of this, 1.4 million tons of selected consumer electronics were collected for recycling for a 41.7 percent recovery rate.

    Tables 14-17 in the 2014 Data Tables show information on generation, recycling, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling for selected consumer electronics. Recycling rates can be found in Table 15.

    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) please see figures 17 and 18 in the Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2014 Data Tables. 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 Data Tables. Corrugated boxes were recycled at 67.3 percent in 2000. This rose to 89.5 percent in 2014. Aluminum beer and soft drink cans were recycled at 55.1 percent in both 2013 and 2014. Steel packaging was recycled at 72.5 percent in 2013 and 72.8 percent in 2014. Glass packaging was recycled at 34 percent in 2013 and at 32.5 percent in 2014.

    Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and jars were recycled at a rate of 31.3 percent in 2013 and 31.2 percent in 2014. High density polyethylene (HDPE) natural bottles were recycled at a rate of 28.2 percent in 2013 and 29.5 percent in 2014. Plastic bags, sacks, and wraps were recycled at a rate of 13.5 percent in 2013 and 12.3 percent in 2014. Wood packaging was recycled at a rate of 26.2 percent in 2013 and 26.5 percent in 2014.

    Information on recycling of Styrofoam packaging can be found in Table 8 of the 2014 Data Tables. Styrofoam containers are known as polystyrene (PS) containers. In 2014, 80 million tons were generated, and a negligible amount (less than 5,000 tons) was recycled in the United States. Additionally, 150 million tons of polystyrene bags, sacks, and wraps were generated in 2014.

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

    The Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2014 Data Tables (Table 18) show that 12.15 million tons of clothing and footwear were generated in 2014. "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 groups like Goodwill.

    Table 19 in the 2014 Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2014 Data Tables shows that 15.6 percent of clothing and footwear was recycled in 2014. These numbers do not include the amount of textiles donated or resold in the United States for reuse. Table 20 of the 2014 Data Tables shows that 2.01 million tons of clothing and footwear were combusted with energy recovery in 2014. Table 21 of the 2014 Data Tables shows that 8.24 million tons of clothing and footwear were landfilled in 2014.

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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 2014, our most current data shows the actual recycling rate for some key beverage containers is:

    • Glass beer and soft drink bottles—39.5 percent
    • Glass wine and liquor bottles—31.8 percent
    • Aluminum beer and soft drink cans—55.1 percent
    • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles and jars—31.2 percent
    • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic natural bottles—29.5 percent

    The figures above come from Advancing Sustainable Materials Management (SMM): Facts and Figures 2014 Data Tables, Table 25.

    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 Advancing SMM Report?

    In the United States in 2014, 258 million tons (U.S. short tons unless specified) of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) (trash) were generated. About 89 million tons of MSW were recycled and composted, which was for a 34.6 percent recycling rate.

  • 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 2014 Data Tables include the following information:

    We have statistics for plastic bags, sacks and wraps (which includes shrink wrap), as a category. In the 2014 Data Tables, Table 22 shows that about 4,050,000 tons (4.05 million tons) of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were generated in 2014, while Table 24 shows that 500,000 tons (.50 million tons) were recycled. Table 26 shows that 700,000 tons (.70 million tons) of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were combusted with energy recovery. Table 28 shows that 2,850,000 (2.85 million tons) of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were landfilled. About 12.3 percent of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were recycled in 2014 (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 food management since the 1990s. Food waste in the U.S. is a massive problem. In 2014, more than 38 million tons of food waste was generated from residential, commercial, and institutional sectors, with only 5.1 percent diverted from landfills and incinerators for composting. EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash, constituting 22 percent of discarded municipal solid waste. 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, recycling, and disposal of wasted food in America is from 2014 and is captured in the “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report.”

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