Overall management of municipal solid waste (MSW) across America is currently in fair condition. In many cases the transport and disposal of MSW is self-funding and managed by the private sector, and therefore is sufficiently funded. Americans annually generate about 258 million tons of MSW of which approximately 53% is deposited in landfills – a share that has plateaued in recent years. Currently, 35% of MSW is recycled and 13% is combusted for energy production. There is a need to change the way we think of how solid waste is generated, managed, and potentially used as a resource. We need to recognize that what is routinely discarded may in fact be a reusable resource.
Municipal solid waste (MSW) – more commonly called trash or garbage – consists of everyday items that are used and then thrown away, such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food waste, newspapers, appliances, paint, and batteries. After these items are removed from the waste stream for recycling and composting, the remainder are deposited into landfills facilities. Americans generated about 258 million tons of MSW in 2014, up from the previous peak of 255 million tons in 2007. The average American produces 4.4 pounds per person per day of MSW, down from the peak of 4.74 pounds in 2000, however that has remained relatively flat over the past 25 years.
The waste disposal industry operates largely at the local level, and a 2001 snapshot of the U.S. waste disposal enterprise by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF) estimated that there were an estimated 27,000 organizations, private sector companies and public or quasi-government organization providing solid waste collection and/or disposal in the United States. More than 55% of these were in the public sector, while the remaining 45%, were privately held.
Non-hazardous solid waste is regulated by the federal government. States play a lead role in ensuring the federal criteria for operating municipal solid waste and industrial waste landfills regulations are met, and they may set more stringent requirements. In absence of an approved state program, the federal requirements must be met by waste facilities. Regulations address common problems associated with landfills including location restrictions, liner requirements, leachate collection and removal systems, groundwater monitoring requirements, and closure and post-closure care requirements.
Pass federal and state legislation that would promote, enhance, or facilitate development of resource recovery facilities, including those for recycling, composting, reuse, and energy recovery, as well as technologies for reduction of waste generation.
Promote development of cost effective recycling and sustainable waste handling options for municipalities, specifically in communities where scale and/or the use of older outdated systems is an impediment.
Allow for the interstate movement of MSW to regional solid waste facilities designed in accordance with state and federal regulations as part of regional solid waste planning efforts.
Fund research into alternatives for use of waste, including examining approaches used in other countries.
Require manufacturers to meet standards for the generation of recyclable materials.
Address the true cost of waste – such as through deposits on bottles and fees on plastic bags.
Change the way Americans think of solid waste beyond “garbage” or “trash,” to understand that “waste is not waste until it is wasted.” The materials Americans routinely discard are potential resources.