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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.

Current production and consumption systems do not offer enough incentives for preventing and reducing waste. From product design and packaging to material choices, the entire chain is not designed with waste prevention in mind.  Changing the way we think about waste requires effort by all the parties concerned: consumers, producers, policymakers, local authorities, and waste treatment facilities, among others. Increases in recycling can only occur where consumers are willing to sort their household waste and the infrastructure and market is in place to collect and utilize the recycled materials.

While the total capacity of U.S. landfills is difficult to know, as many are privately owned and operated, it appears these facilities are sufficient to handle current capacity. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last reported a total of 1,908 landfill facilities in America as of 2012, including 128 in the Northeast, 668 in the South, 394 in the Midwest, and 718 in the West. Many are permitted, requiring reporting to the EPA and state regulatory agencies. Disposal to landfills has decreased from 89% of MSW in 1980 to less than 52.6% in 2014. The largest decrease in disposal at landfills occurred from between 1980 and 2000, where it had dropped to 57.6%.  Since then, levels have dropped slowly and leveled off since 2014.

In addition to landfills there are 633 material recovery facilities (MRF) sorting and processing recyclables, with an estimated 98,449 tons passing through per day. For many years, Americans recycled at increasing rates, resulting in less MSW entering landfills; in 1980 less than 10% of MSW was recycled, rising to over 34% in 2014.  However, since 2010 the change represents an increase of only 0.6%. Overall, over 89 million tons of MSW are recycled and composted – 47.4% of MSW generated. However, in many parts of the country, recycling and composting are not occurring due to a lack of market need for recyclable materials, many Americans’ lack of desire to sort and separate waste, and the cost associated with sorting out recyclables at collection facilities. According to the EPA, Americans in at least half of the agency’s regions still send more than 70% of their MSW to landfills.

A significant amount of MSW is burned and converted to energy. An estimated 86 municipal waste-to-energy operating facilities are designed to convert nearly 100,000 tons of MSW per day to electricity.  Overall about 33.1 million tons, or 13%, of MSW was combusted for energy recovery in 2014, this is down slightly from 34 million tons in 2000.

Municipal Waste-to-Energy Operating Facilities by Region
Region Number Operational Design Capacity (tdp)
Northeast 40 46,704
South 22 31,996
Midwest 16 11,393
West 8 6,171

The condition of America’s landfills, MRF and Municipal Waste-to-Energy Operating Facilities are generally good due to federal and state regulations for the construction, operation and maintenance, and environmental monitoring requirements. And the rise of recycling, composting, and burning MSW to produce energy provides significant environmental and economic benefits. Recovery of 66.4 million tons of MSW through recycling, 23 million tons through composting, and 33.1 tons through combusting for energy recovery reduces the amount of waste deposited in landfills by about half the total MSW produced.

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