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Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling

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

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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 2017. See our Sustainable Materials Management web area for relevant information and our State Measurement Program page for state-specific information.

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, sofas, 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.

Waste management strategies from most preferred to the least: Source Reduction and Reuse, then Recycling/Composting, Energy Recovery, and Treatment and Disposal.

 

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 developed the non-hazardous materials and waste management hierarchy in recognition that no single waste management approach is suitable for managing all materials and waste streams in all circumstances. The hierarchy ranks the various management strategies from most to least environmentally preferred. The hierarchy places emphasis on reducing, reusing, and recycling as key to sustainable materials management.

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Generation

The total generation of municipal solid waste in 2017 was 267.8 million tons (U.S. short tons, unless specified) of MSW, approximately 5.7 million tons more than the amount generated in 2015. MSW generated in 2017 increased to 4.51 pounds per person per day. This is an increase from the 262.1 million tons generated in 2015 and the 208.3 million tons in 1990.

 
 
 

Per capita MSW generation increased from 4.48 pounds per person per day in 2015 to 4.51 pounds per person per day in 2017, 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 25 percent of total generation. Generation of paper and paperboard products declined from 84.8 million tons in 2005 to 67 million tons in 2017. 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 28 percent of generation since 2005.

Yard trimmings comprised the fourth largest material category, estimated at 35.2 million tons, or 13.1 percent of total generation, in 2017. 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 2017, plastic products generation was 35.4 million tons, or 13.2 percent of generation. This was an increase of four million tons from 2010 to 2017, 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 13.2 percent in 2017. Plastics generation as a percent of total generation has grown slightly over the past five years.

In 2017, 2.8 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 67.2 million tons, with paper and paperboard accounting for approximately 66 percent of that amount. Metals comprised about 12 percent, while glass, plastic and wood made up between 4 and 5 percent.

Composting

The total MSW composted was 27 million tons. This included approximately 24.4 million tons of yard trimmings (more than a five-fold increase since 1990) and 2.6 million tons of food waste.

 
 
 

Measured by tonnage, the most-recycled or composted  products and materials in 2017 were corrugated boxes (28.8 million tons), yard trimmings (24.4 million tons), mixed nondurable paper products (9.9 million tons), newspapers/mechanical papers (4.2 million tons), lead-acid batteries (3.2 million tons), major appliances (3.1 million tons), glass containers (three million tons), wood packaging (three million tons), tires (2.6 million tons), food (2.6 million tons), mixed paper containers and packaging (1.3 million tons) and selected consumer electronics (one million tons). Collectively, these products accounted for 92 percent of total MSW recycling and composting in 2017.

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

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Combustion with Energy Recovery

In 2017, 34 million tons of MSW were combusted with energy recovery. Food made up the largest component of MSW combusted at approximately 22 percent. Rubber, leather and textiles accounted for over 16 percent of MSW combustion. Plastics comprised about 16 percent, and paper and paperboard made up about 13 percent. The other materials accounted for less than 10 percent each.

 
 
 

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Landfilling

In 2017, about 139.6 million tons of MSW were landfilled. Food was the largest component at about 22 percent. Plastics accounted for about 19 percent, paper and paperboard made up about 13 percent, and rubber, leather and textiles comprised over 11 percent. Other materials accounted for less than 10 percent each.

 
 
 

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Trends – 1960 to Today

In 2017, the amount of MSW generated was 267.8 million tons. The amount of MSW recycled was 67.2 million tons and the amount composted was 27 million tons. The amount of MSW combusted with energy recovery was 34 million tons, while the amount of MSW sent to landfills was 139.6 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 267.8 million tons in 2017. Generation decreased 1 percent between 2005 and 2010, followed by a rise in generation of 7 percent from 2010 to 2017.
  • 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 4.51 pounds per person per day in 2017, which was one of the lowest generation rates since 1990.
  • Over time, recycling rates have increased from just over 6 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 35 percent in 2017.
  • The amount of MSW combusted with energy recovery increased from zero in 1960 to 14 percent in 1990. In 2017, it was over 12 percent.
  • The disposal of waste to landfills has decreased from 94 percent of the amount generated in 1960 to about 52 percent of the amount generated in 2017.
 
 
 

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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 67 million tons in 2017. 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 2017.

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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 2017 recycling rate was 35.2 percent.

The recycling (as a percentage of generation) of the below materials in MSW has mostly increased over the last 47 years. See the table below for examples.

Recycling as a percentage of generation
  1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2005 2010 2015 2016 2017
Paper and Paperboard 17% 15% 21% 28% 43% 50% 63% 67% 68% 66%
Glass 2% 1% 5% 20% 23% 21% 27% 28% 28% 27%
Plastics Neg. Neg. <1% 2% 6% 6% 8% 9% 9% 8%
Yard Trimmings Neg. Neg. Neg. 12% 52% 62% 58% 61% 66% 69%
Lead-acid batteries Neg. 76% 70% 97% 93% 96% 99% 99% 99% 99%

"Neg." means less than 5,000 tons or 0.05 percent.

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Recycling and Composting Trends Specific to 2015-2017

Included in the generation number are the 94 million tons of MSW recycled and composted in 2017. The following provides a detailed breakdown of the numbers:

  • 67.2 million tons of MSW were recycled in 2017, slightly less than the 66.7 million tons recycled in 2015.
  • There was an increase from 23.4 million to 27 million tons of food and yard trimmings recovered for composting between 2015 and 2017.
  • The recovery rate for recycling (including composting) was 35.2 percent in 2017, up from 34.7 percent in 2015.
  • The recycling rate in 2017 (including composting) was 1.58 pounds per person per day, including:
    • 1.13 pounds per person per day for recycling.
    • 0.45 pounds per person per day for composting.

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

  • In 2017, the rate of paper and paperboard recycling was 65.9 percent (44.2 million tons), down slightly from 66.6 percent in 2015 (45.3 million tons), and up from 42.8 percent in 2000.
  • The rate of yard trimmings composted in 2017 was 69.4 percent (24.4 million tons), up from 61.3 percent (21.3 million tons) in 2015.
  • The rate of yard trimmings composted in 2000 was 51.7 percent.
  • In 2017, the rate of food and other composting was 6.3 percent (2.6 million tons), up from 5.3 percent in 2015 (2.1 million tons). The rate of food composting was 2.2 percent in the year 2000.

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Environmental Benefits

EPA’s report Sustainable Materials Management: The Road Ahead serves as the foundation for the EPA SMM Program. The recommendations and analytical framework under the Road Ahead encourages the consideration of multiple environmental benefits when developing materials management strategies. Currently, EPA has a tool for estimating greenhouse gas reductions resulting from sustainable materials management – the Waste Reduction Model (WARM). This section shows those GHG reduction environmental benefits. The Agency is developing additional tools to provide information on other environmental benefits and will include these tools and data as they become available.

In 2017, the recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling of MSW saved over 184 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2E). This is comparable to the emissions that could be reduced from taking over 39 million cars off the road in a year.

Paper and paperboard recycling, at about 44.2 million tons, resulted in the largest portion of the total MSW reduction of about 148 MMTCO2E in 2017. This reduction is equivalent to removing over 31 million cars from the road for one year.

The energy and GHG benefits of recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling shown in the table below are calculated using the WARM methodology. The estimates of MMTCO2E are calculated using WARM, and identify not only the environmental benefits of recycling, composting and combustion for energy recovery, but also the benefit of not landfilling materials.

Environmental Benefits Table

(The numbers in the Recycled, Composted, Combustion with Energy Recovery and Landfilled columns are listed by weight of material* in millions of tons)

Material Recycled Composted Combustion with Energy Recovery Landfilled GHG Benefits (MMTCO2E) Passenger Vehicle Emissions/Year (millions of cars)
Paper and paperboard 44.17 - 4.49 18.35 (147.97) (31.42)
Glass 3.03 - 1.48 6.87 (0.89) (0.19)
Steel 6.17 - 2.29 10.43 (15.12) (3.21)
Aluminum 0.62 - 0.56 2.65 (5.66) (1.20)
Other nonferrous metals** 1.54 - 0.07 0.72 (6.87) (1.46)
Total metals 8.33 - 2.92 13.8 (27.65) (5.87)
Plastics 2.96 - 5.59 26.82 3.82 0.81
Rubber and Leather† 1.67 - 1.74 0.78 0.17 0.04
Textiles 2.57 - 3.17 11.15 (2.76) (0.59)
Wood 3.0 - 2.85 12.14 (3.15) (0.67)
Food, Other‡ - 2.57 7.47 30.63 (6.90) (1.46)
Yard trimmings - 24.42 2.11 8.65 0.85 0.18
Miscellaneous Inorganic Wastes - - 0.79 3.25 (0.27) (0.58)
Totals 65.73 26.99 32.61 132.44 (184.74) (39.22)

*Includes material from residential, commercial and institutional sources.
**Includes lead-acid batteries. Other nonferrous metals are calculated in WARM as mixed metals.
†Only includes rubber from tires.
‡Includes collection of other MSW organics for composting.

These calculations do not include an additional 10.02 million tons of MSW that could not be addressed in the WARM model. MMTCO2E is a million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Numbers in parentheses indicate a reduction in either GHGs or vehicles, and therefore represent environmental benefits.

Source: WARM model Version 15

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