EPA releases municipal solid waste report

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released its annual report on municipal solid waste in the United States, which includes a trove of information on national recycling and composting trends.

Based on data collected between 1960 and 2009, the 2009 Municipal Solid Waste in the United States report says the country generated 243 million tons of MSW in 2009 — 8 million fewer tons than the previous year. Not including composted materials, over 61 million tons of this volume were recycled in 2009, yielding a recycling rate of 33.8 percent.

Paper and paperboard made up the largest slice of the waste stream, accounting for 28.2 percent of all MSW before recycling. Over 62 percent of the 68.4 million tons of paper and paperboard generated in 2009 was recovered for recycling. Paper product generation reached its high point in 2000, according to the report, with approximately 88 million tons produced that year. Paper product generation has declined since then, while recovery rates have continued to climb.

Food scraps and yard debris accounted for 14.1 percent and 13.7 percent, respectively, of MSW before composting. Food scrap waste generation was estimated to be 34.3 million tons in 2009, in addition to 33.2 million tons of yard debris. The report said estimates of the volume or percentage of material composted for the two streams varied, but was generally improved versus 2008.

Plastics made up 12.3 percent of all municipal solid waste before recycling. Plastics represent one of the most rapidly growing areas of the MSW stream. Nearly 30 million tons of plastic packaging, containers, products and other items were generated in 2009, compared to just 390,000 tons in 1960. Of last year’s totals, only 7.1 percent were recycled. The report acknowledged that this number is not representative of all types of plastic, signaling out PET bottles and jars, which had a 2009 recycling rate of 28 percent, and HDPE bottles and containers, which had a recycling rate of 29 percent.

Metals (ferrous and non-ferrous) accounted for 8.6 percent of all MSW before recycling in 2009. Over 7.2 million tons of the nearly 21 million tons of metals generated were recycled, yielding a recycling rate of 34.5 percent. Both MSW generation and recycling tonnages have increased substantially since 1960.

Finally, glass items were 4.8 percent of all MSW before recycling. Slightly more than 11.7 million tons of glass products made their way into the MSW stream in 2009, of which, 3 million tons (25.5 percent) were recycled.