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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Undated document downloaded October 22, 2002.

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW): Basic Facts


MSW—more commonly known as trash or garbage—consists of everyday items such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint, and batteries.

In 2000, U.S. residents,businesses, and institutions produced nearly 232 million tons of MSW, which is approximately 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day, up from 2.7 pounds per person per day in 1960.

Chart: 2000 Total Waste Generation

Several MSW management practices, such as source reduction, recycling, and composting, prevent or divert materials from the wastestream. Source reduction involves altering the design, manufacture, or use of products and materials to reduce the amount and toxicity of what gets thrown away. Recycling diverts items, such as paper, glass, plastic, and metals, from the wastestream. These materials are sorted, collected, and processed and then manufactured, sold, and bought as new products. Composting decomposes organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, with microorganisms (mainly bacteria and fungi), producing a humus-like substance.

Chart: Trends in MSW Generation, 1960-2000

Other practices address those materials that require disposal. Landfills are engineered areas where waste is placed into the land. Landfills usually have liner systems and other safeguards to prevent groundwater contamination. Combustion is another MSW practice that has helped reduce the amount of landfill space needed. Combustion facilities burn MSW at a high temperature, reducing waste volume and generating electricity.

Solid Waste Hierarchy

EPA has ranked the most environmentally sound strategies for MSW. Source reduction (including reuse) is the most preferred method, followed by recycling and composting, and, lastly, disposal in combustion facilities and landfills. Currently, in the United States, 30.1 percent is recovered and recycled or composted, 14.5 percent is burned at combustion facilities, and the remaining 55.3 percent is disposed of in landfills.

Source Reduction (Waste Prevention)

Source reduction can be a successful method of reducing waste generation. Practices such as grasscycling, backyard composting, two-sided copying of paper, and transport packaging reduction by industry have yielded substantial benefits through source reduction. Source reduction has many environmental benefits. It prevents emissions of many greenhouse gases, reduces pollutants, saves energy, conserves resources, and reduces the need for new landfills and combustors.

Recycling

Recycling, including composting, diverted 69.9 million tons of material away from landfills and incinerators in 2000, up from 33 million tons in 1990.

Chart: Waste Recycling Rates 1960-2000

Typical materials that are recycled include batteries, recycled at a rate of 96.4%, paper and paperboard at 45.4%, and yard trimmings at 56.9%. These materials and others may be recycled through curbside programs, drop-off centers, buy-back programs, and deposit systems.

Recycling prevents the emission of many greenhouse gases and water pollutants, saves energy, supplies valuable raw materials to industry, creates jobs, stimulates the development of greener technologies, conserves resources for our children’s future, and reduces the need for new landfills and combustors.

Recycling also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions that affect global climate. In 2000, recycling resulted in an annual energy savings of at least 660 trillion BTUs, which equals the amount of energy used in 6 million households annually.



Chart: Recycling Rates of Selected Materials, 2000

Combustion/Incineration

Burning MSW can generate energy while reducing the amount of waste by up to 90 percent in volume and 75 percent in weight. EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation is primarily responsible for regulating combustors because air emissions from combustion pose the greatest environmental concern. In 2000, in the United States, there were 102 combustors with energy recovery with the capacity to burn nearly 96,000 tons of MSW per day.

Landfills

Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), landfills that accept MSW are primarily regulated by state, tribal, and local governments. EPA, however, has established national standards these landfills must meet in order to stay open. Municipal landfills can, however, accept household hazardous waste.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted by Congress in 1976 and amended in 1984. The act's primary goal is to protect human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal. In addition, RCRA calls for conservation of energy and natural resources, reduction in waste generated, and environmentally sound waste management practices.

The number of landfills in the United States is steadily decreasing—from 8,000 in 1988 to 1,967 in 2000. The capacity, however, has remained relatively constant. New landfills are much larger than in the past.

Household Hazardous Waste

Households often discard many common items such as paint, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides, that contain hazardous components. Leftover portions of these products are called household hazardous waste (HHW). These products, if mishandled, can be dangerous to your health and the environment.

Environmental Terms, Abbreviations, and Acronyms

EPA provides a glossary that defines in non-technical language commonly used environmental terms appearing in EPA publications and materials. It also explains abbreviations and acronyms used throughout EPA.


Recommended Sources for MSW Information
  • Background Press Information On Municipal Solid Waste Management
    This series of documents has been organized to assist reporters covering municipal solid waste management issues. They provide background information on EPA's solid waste reduction and recycling goals.
  • Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2000 Facts and Figures: Describes the national MSW stream based on data collected between 1960 and 2000. Includes information on MSW generation, recovery, and discard quantities; per capita generation and discard rates; residential and commercial portions of MSW generation; and the role of source reduction and other trends in MSW management.
  • Decision-Maker’s Guide to Solid Waste Management, Volume II: Contains technical and economic information to assist solid waste management practitioners in planning, managing, and operating MSW programs and facilities. Includes suggestions for best practices when planning or evaluating waste and recycling collection systems, source reduction and composting programs, public education, and landfill and combustion issues.

This document is not necessarily endorsed by the Almanac of Policy Issues. It is being preserved  in the Policy Archive for historic reasons.

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