Thursday, July 27, 2017

Trash in America

In 2014, in the United States, we threw out about 258 million tons (U.S. short tons) of household trash or more formally municipal solid waste (MSW). Of that trash, more than 89 million tons or 34.6% of MSW was recycled and composted, 33 million tons (12.8%) of MSW was burned to produce power and 136 million tons (52.7%) was buried in landfills. Our trash, or MSW, is consists of various items that include packaging, food, yard trimmings, furniture, electronics, tires and appliances that Americans commonly throw away. MSW does not include industrial, hazardous or construction waste.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been collecting data on the generation and disposal of waste in the United States for more than 30 years. Municipal solid waste generation per person per day peaked in 2000. The 4.4 pounds per person per day in 2014 is about the same as in 2013, and is one of the lowest rates since before 1990.
National trend in MSW generation from US EPA
Of the 258 million tons of MSW generated in 2014, containers and packaging made up the largest portion: 29.7%, or over 76 million tons. Non-durable and durable goods each made up about 20% (over 52 million tons) each. Food made up 14.9% (38.4 million tons), yard trimmings made up 13.3% (34.5 million tons) and other wastes made up 1.5% (4 million tons).
Total MSW by material 2014 from US EPA

The percentage of trash we recycle and compost has increased from less than 10 % in 1980 to over 34 % in 2014. Burning trash to produce power increased from less than 2 % of MSW in 1980 to 12.8% in 2014. Landfilling of MSW decreased from 89 % in 1980 less than 53% in 2014. However, that does mean that 134.9 tons of trash were landfilled in 1980 and a slightly higher 136.7 tons of trash were landfilled in 2014. 
US recycling and composting trends from US EPA
Of the 136 million tons of MSW that were landfilled, food was the largest component (over 21 %). Plastics accounted for over 18 %, paper and paperboard made up over 14% and rubber, leather and textiles comprised over 10 %. Other material categories accounted for the rest and all were less than 10% each.

Of the more than 89 million tons or 34.6% of MSW was recycled and composted, almost half was paper and paperboard. This represented more than 64% of the total paper and paperboard generated that was recycled. Over 21 million tons of yard trimmings were composted (almost a five-fold increase since 1990), and in 2014, 34 % of metal was recycled. Recycling and composting these three materials alone kept over 28% of total MSW out of landfills. We are clearly most successful at recycling paper and paperboard.
2014 Recycling and Composting breakdown by material from US EPA

In 2014 total MSW recycling and composting was over 89 million tons. As you can see above paper and paperboard accounted for almost 50% of all recycling, yard trimmings accounted for over 23% while food accounted for another 2%. Metals comprised about nine percent and glass, plastic and wood made up about 3% each. Other miscellaneous materials made up about 6% of MSW recycling and composting.

If mankind is going to keep living on this earth without the planet becoming one giant landfill, we need to reduce our overall trash generation and increase our recycling, and we need to move beyond recycling, composting, combustion for power and landfilling. Manufacturers are developing mixed material products that can be recycled and countries like Japan are requiring manufacturers to take back products they sell at the end of their useful life. 

To assure we have sufficient resources to not only meet today’s needs, but those of the future, we need to build on the familiar concept of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. We need to reduce the materials used and the associated environmental impacts over  products' life cycles. Using materials in their most productive way,  reducing materials, products and packaging.

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