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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.

On this page:

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

    EPA uses two categories to characterize the 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in 2017. 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 (as of 2017) of 35.2 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 2014 to 2017, including yard trimmings 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.

    Finally, a positive statistic is that the per capita generation rate of municipal solid waste is trending down. In fact, the 2017 generation rate of 4.51 pounds per person is lower than the 1990 rate. 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 2017 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 2.84 million tons of consumer electronics goods were generated in 2017. Of this, 1.02 million tons of selected consumer electronics were collected for recycling for a 35.9 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 2016 and 2017 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 2016 and 2017 Data Tables. Corrugated boxes were recycled at 67.3 percent in 2000. This rose to 88.4 percent in 2017. High density polyethylene (HDPE) natural bottles were recycled at a rate of 30.3 percent in 2015 and 31.2 percent in 2017.

    Information on recycling of Styrofoam packaging can be found in Table 8 of the 2016 and 2017 Data Tables. Styrofoam containers are known as polystyrene (PS) containers. In 2017, 90 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 were generated in 2017.

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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 2017, our most current data shows the actual recycling rate for some key beverage containers is:

    • Glass beer and soft drink bottles—39.1 percent
    • Glass wine and liquor bottles—39.1 percent
    • Aluminum beer and soft drink cans—49.2 percent
    • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles and jars—29.1 percent
    • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic natural bottles—31.2 percent

    The figures above come from Table 25 of the Advancing Sustainable Materials Management (SMM): Facts and Figures 2016 and 2017 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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  • 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 2016 and 2017 Data Tables include the following information:

    We have statistics for plastic bags, sacks and wraps (which includes shrink wrap), as a category. In the 2017 Data Tables, Table 22 shows that about 4,140,000 tons (4.14 million tons) of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were generated in 2017, while Table 24 shows that 390,000 tons (0.39 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 3,010,000 (3.01 million tons) of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were landfilled. About 9.4 percent of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were recycled in 2017 (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 United States is a problem. In 2017, more than 40 million tons of food waste was generated from residential, commercial, and institutional sectors, with only 6.3 percent diverted from landfills and combustion facilities for composting. EPA estimates that more food reaches landfills and combustion facilities 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 2017. 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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  • 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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