EPA MSW plastics

EPA report: MSW down, recycling up

By Editorial Staff, Resource Recycling

As the national economy sputtered in recent years, the total amount of trash produced by Americans fell alongside consumption. During that same period, however, recycling totals actually climbed slowly, according to recent figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA's report, "Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2011 Facts and Figures," shows that 66.2 million tons of MSW were recovered for recycling in 2011, the most recent year for which EPA-generated stats are available. That's an increase of 1.24 million tons compared with the total from 2010 and an increase of 3 million tons from 2007. Overall MSW generation by Americans in 2011, meanwhile, was 250.42 million tons, down slightly from 250.5 million tons generated in 2010 and the 256.5 million tons generated in 2007.

In short, from 2007 to 2011, as the country's total MSW generation slid by 2.4 percent, the nation's total recycling haul went up by 5 percent.

According to the EPA report, paper and paperboard continue to be far and away the materials most recycled within the U.S. MSW stream. In 2011, 45.9 million tons of paper and paperboard were recovered through recycling – that number represents nearly 66 percent of the total weight of paper and paperboard waste generated by Americans. Metals were the next most recycled material with 7.51 million tons (or 34.2 percent) of steel, aluminum and other nonferrous metals being recovered.

The EPA defines MSW as "everyday items," including product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, bottles, food scraps, newspapers and appliances and does not include construction or demolition waste, which can help explain the low tonnage of the metals portion of the MSW stream.

On the plastics front, Americans generated 31.84 tons of plastics in their MSW streams in 2011, and of that, 2.65 million tons of plastics (or 8.3 percent) was recovered through recycling. The plastics numbers saw tiny upticks from 2010 to 2011. In the 2010 report, overall generation of the material was 31.04 million tons, and the recycling rate was 8.2 percent.

The agency's report shows that total MSW generation was 4.4 pounds per person, per day (a 6 percent decrease from 2007), and the recycling rate was 1.53 pounds per person, per day – in 2007, that figure was 1.54 pounds.

Overall gains in recycling numbers have in the past decade begun to level off as collection programs and consumer awareness become more well established in municipalities across the country.

"There may be varying reasons why there has been a plateau, from limited expansion, enhancement of recycling infrastructure and programs to limited resources," the EPA said in a statement to Plastics Recycling Update.  "This is why EPA has been focusing our attention on sustainable materials management, which encourages the use and reuse of materials in the most productive and sustainable way across their entire life cycle."

EPA MSW Figures

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