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Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling

National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling

On this page:


The Current National Picture

EPA began collecting and reporting data on the generation and disposition of waste in the United States more than 30 years ago. The Agency uses this information to measure the success of materials management programs across the country and to characterize the national waste stream. These Facts and Figures are current through calendar year 2014. See our Sustainable Materials Management web area for relevant information and our State Measurement Program page for state-specific information.

EPA is also thinking beyond waste, and we have transitioned from focusing on waste management to focusing on Sustainable Materials Management (SMM), which refers to the use and reuse of materials across their entire life cycle. SMM conserves resources, reduces waste and minimizes the environmental impacts of materials we use. In an era of limited resources, the sustainable management of natural capital is increasingly at the forefront of international dialogue about how to achieve economic growth without compromising human health and the environment.

EPA refers to trash, or municipal solid waste (MSW), as various items consumers throw away after they are used. These items include bottles and corrugated boxes, food, grass clippings, sofa, computers, tires and refrigerators. However, MSW does not include everything that is landfilled in MSW, or nonhazardous, landfills, such as construction and demolition (C&D) debris, municipal wastewater sludge, and other non-hazardous industrial wastes. While the analysis in Facts and Figures focuses primarily on MSW, EPA has been including estimates of C&D generation and recovery in recent years.

Left: Waste management strategies from most preferred to the least: Source Reduction and Reuse, then Recycling/Composting, Energy Recovery, and Treatment and Disposal. Right: Municipal solid waste management from 1960 to 2014.

Management of MSW continues to be a high priority for states and local governments. The concept of integrated solid waste management is increasingly being used by states and local governments as they plan for the future. This management practice includes the source reduction of wastes before they enter the waste stream and the recovery of generated waste for recycling or composting. It also includes environmentally sound management through combustion with energy recovery and landfilling practices that meet current standards or newly emerging waste conversion technologies.

EPA has endorsed the concept of integrated waste management, which allows municipalities to manage MSW through difference pathways or practices, and can be tailored to the needs of a particular community. EPA’s integrated waste management hierarchy includes the following pathways:

  • Source reduction (or waste prevention), including the reuse of products and the on-site (or backyard) composting of yard trimmings;
  • Recycling;
  • Composting, including off-site (or community) composting;
  • Combustion with energy recovery; and
  • Disposal through landfilling.

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Generation

The total generation of municipal solid waste in 2014 was 258.5 million tons (U.S. short tons, unless specified) of MSW in 2014, approximately 3.5 million tons more than the amount generated in 2013. MSW generated in 2014 increased to 4.44 pounds per person per day. This is an increase from the 255 million tons generated in 2013 and the 208.3 million tons in 1990.

Two MSW Generation by Material (2014) and Generation Tonnages (1960-2014)

Per capita MSW generation increased from 4.42 pounds per person per day in 2013 to 4.44 pounds per person per day in 2014, which is one of the lowest estimates since 1990. MSW generation per person per day peaked in 2000.

Paper and paperboard products made up the largest percentage of all the materials in MSW, at 26.5 percent of total generation. Generation of paper and paperboard products declined from 84.8 million tons in 2005 to 68.6 million tons in 2014. Generation of newspapers has been declining since 2000, and this trend is expected to continue, partly due to decreased page size, but mainly due to the increased digitization of news. The generation of office-type (high grade) papers also has been in decline, due at least partially to the increased use of the electronic transmission of reports, etc. Paper and paperboard products have ranged between 33 and 27 percent of generation since 2005.

Yard trimmings comprised the third largest material category, estimated at 34.5 million tons, or 13.3 percent of total generation, in 2014. This compares to 35 million tons (16.8 percent of total generation) in 1990. The decline in yard trimmings generation since 1990 is largely due to state legislation discouraging yard trimmings disposal in landfills, including source reduction measures such as backyard composting and leaving grass trimmings on the yard.

In 2014, plastic products generation was 33.3 million tons, or 12.9 percent of generation. This was an increase of 1.9 million tons from 2010 to 2014, and it came from durable goods and the containers and packaging categories. Plastics generation has grown from 8.2 percent of generation in 1990 to 12.9 percent in 2014. Plastics generation as a percent of total generation has grown slightly over the past four years.

In 2014, 3.4 million tons of selected consumer electronics were generated, representing less than 2 percent of MSW generation. Selected consumer electronics include products such as TVs, VCRs, DVD players, video cameras, stereo systems, telephones, and computer equipment.

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Recycling/Composting

Recycling

The total MSW recycled was 66.5 million tons, with paper and paperboard accounting for approximately 67 percent of that amount. Metals comprised about 12 percent, while glass, plastic and wood made up between four and five percent.

Left: pie chart of Total MSW Recycling and Composting by material in 2014. 89 million tons were recycled and composted. Right: graph of generation tonnages, spanning the years 1960 to 2014. Shows how much of different materials was generated.

Composting

The total MSW composted was 23 million tons. This included approximately 21 million tons of yard trimmings (almost a five-fold increase since 1990) and two million tons of food waste.

Measured by tonnage, the most-recycled or composted  products and materials in 2014 were corrugated boxes (27.3 million tons), yard trimmings (21.1 million tons), mixed nondurable paper products (9.7 million tons), newspapers/mechanical papers (5.2 million tons), glass containers (3 million tons), lead-acid batteries (2.8 million tons), major appliances (2.7 million tons), wood packaging (2.6 million tons), tires (2.3 million tons), mixed paper containers and packaging (2.2 million tons), food (1.9 million tons) and selected consumer electronics (1.4 million tons). Collectively, these products accounted for 92 percent of total MSW recycling and composting in 2014.

Check out our Reduce, Reuse, Recycle web area for more information on recycling and composting.

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Combustion with Energy Recovery

In 2014, 33 million tons of MSW were combusted with energy recovery. Food made up the largest component of MSW combusted (over 21 percent). Rubber, leather and textiles accounted for over 17 percent of MSW combustion. Plastics comprised about 15 percent, and paper and paperboard made up over 14 percent. The other materials accounted for less than 10 percent each.

Left: pie chart of total MSW combusted with energy recovery by material in 2014. 33 million tons were combusted. Right: graph on combustion with energy recovery tonnages, spanning the years 1960-2014. Shows how much of different materials was combusted.

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Landfilling

In 2014, about 136 million tons of MSW were landfilled. Food was the largest component (over 21 percent). Plastics accounted for over 18 percent, paper and paperboard made up over 14 percent, and rubber, leather and textiles comprised over 10 percent. Other materials accounted for less than 10 percent each.

Left: pie chart on total MSW landfilled by material in 2014. 136 million tons were landfilled. Right: graph on landfilling tonnages, spanning the years 1960 to 2014. Shows how much of different materials was landfilled.

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Trends – 1960 to Today

In 2014, the amount of MSW generated was 258.5 million tons. The amount of MSW recycled was 66.5 million tons and the amount composed was 23 million tons. The amount of MSW combusted with energy recovery was 33.1 million tons, while the amount of MSW sent to landfills was 135 million tons. Presented below are details of these trends:

  • Over the last few decades, the generation, recycling and disposal of MSW has changed substantially. Generation of MSW increased (except in recession years) from 88.1 million tons in 1960 to 258.5 million tons in 2014. After 2005, generation decreased due to the depressed economy. Generation decreased one percent between 2005 and 2010, followed by a rise in generation of three percent from 2010 to 2014.
  • The generation rate in 1960 was just 2.68 pounds per person per day. It increased to 3.66 pounds per person per day in 1980. In 2000, it reached 4.74 pounds per person per day, and then decreased to 4.69 pounds per person per day in 2005. The generation rate was 4.44 pounds per person per day in 2014, which was one of the lowest generation rates since 1980.
  • Over time, recycling rates have increased from just over six percent of MSW generated in 1960 to about 10 percent in 1980, to 16 percent in 1990, to about 29 percent in 2000, and to over 34 percent in 2014.
  • The amount of MSW combusted with energy recovery increased from zero in 1960 to 14 percent in 1990. In 2014, it was almost 13 percent.
  • The disposal of waste to landfills has decreased from 94 percent of the amount generated in 1960 to under 53 percent of the amount generated in 2014.

Left: Graph of municipal solid waste generation rates from 1960 to 2014. Right: graph of municipal solid waste recycling and composting rates from 1960 to 2014.

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Generation Trends

The generation of paper and paperboard, the largest material component of MSW, fluctuates from year to year, but has decreased from 87.7 million tons in 2000 to 68.6 million tons in 2014. Generation of yard trimmings has increased since 2000. Generation of other material categories fluctuates from year to year, but overall MSW generation increased from 1960 to 2005, with the trend reversing from 2005 to 2010, and rising again from 2010 through 2014.

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Recycling and Composting Trends

In percentage of total MSW generation, recycling (including composting) did not exceed 15 percent until 1990. Growth in the recycling rate was significant over the next 15 years, spanning until 2005. The recycling rate grew more slowly over the last few years. The 2014 recycling rate was 34.6 percent.

The recycling (as a percentage of generation) of most materials in MSW increased dramatically over the last 44 years. See the table to the right for examples.

This table includes examples of how the recycling (as a percentage of generation) of most materials in MSW has increased dramatically over the last 44 years.

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Recycling and Composting Trends Specific to 2013-2014

Included in the generation number are the 89 million tons of MSW recycled and composted in 2014. The following provides a detailed breakdown of the numbers:

  • 66.4 million tons of MSW were recycled in 2014, similar to the tons recycled in 2013.
  • There was an increase from 22 million to 23 million tons of food and yard trimmings recovered for composting between 2013 and 2014.
  • The recovery rate for recycling (including composting) was 34.6 percent in 2014, up slightly from 34.3 percent in 2013.
  • The recycling rate in 2014 (including composting) was 1.54 pounds per person per day, including:
    • 1.14 pounds per person per day for recycling.
    • 0.40 pounds per person per day for composting.

Listed here are the composting or recycling rates for three categories of materials, including yard trimmings, selected consumer electronics and food:

  • The rate of yard trimmings composted in 2014 was 61.1 percent (21.1 million tons), up from 60.2 percent (20.6 million tons) in 2013.
  • The rate of yard trimmings composted in 2000 was 51.7 percent.
  • In 2014, the rate of selected consumer electronics recycling was 41.7 percent (1.4 million tons), up from 37.8 percent in 2013 (1.3 million tons), and 10 percent in 2000.
  • In 2014, the rate of food and other composting was 5.1 percent (1.94 million tons), up from 5 percent in 2013 (1.84 million tons). The rate of food composting was 2.2 percent in the year 2000.

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