Municipal Solid Waste

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), often called simply trash, is made up of the things we commonly use at home and throw away, as: food scraps, packaging, old furniture, clothes, refrigerators, or grass trimmings.

The OECD definition: "Municipal waste is collected and treated by, or for municipalities. It covers waste from households, including bulky waste, similar waste from commerce and trade, office buildings, institutions and small businesses, yard and garden, street sweepings, contents of litter containers, and market cleansing. Waste from municipal sewage networks and treatment, as well as municipal construction and demolition is excluded."

For over 30 years, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency has collected information on waste generation and disposal. Every two years the Agency publishes a report on municipal waste figures – its generation, recovery achievements and disposal.

The total generation of municipal solid waste in 2018 was 292.4 million tons. This is 4.9 lb/person/day. Paper was 23 percent, yard waste was 12.1 percent, and food was 21.6 percent.

Among recovered materials, auto batteries are on the top place with the recycling rate of 99.2%. Office-type paper was recycled in 70.9%, and yard trimmings - in 64.7%. Americans managed to recycle 7 million tons of metals, which is an equivalent of removing 4.5 million cars from the road for one year.

135 million tons of trash was disposed to landfills. That is 54% of the total MSW in 2008. Significant improvement has been made comparing to the results from 1980 (89%).

Analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data reveals, that solid waste generation increased over decades from 3.66 pounds per person per day in 1980 to 4.5 in 2008. On the other hand, the recycling rate has also increased from less than 10 to more than 33%.

Sources of MSW

55-65% of the total MSW is residential waste, from houses and apartment buildings. The remaining 35-45% of the trash is produced by commercial and institutional facilities such as hospitals, schools and businesses.

The largest component of MSW are organic materials. Paper and cardboard account for 31%, yard trimmings and food scraps for 26%, and plastic for 12% of the bulk. Metals make up 8%, as does rubber, leather and textiles. Wood forms around 7%, and glass – 5 %, while other miscellaneous wastes account for 3% of the MSW.

Recovery achievements

Significants quanities of MSW were recycled and composted, with the highest recovery rates achieved in yard trimmings (64.7%), paper and cardboard (55.5%) and metals (34.6%).

About 32 million tons of materials (12.7%) were combusted for energy recovery. The combustion for energy recovery rate remains fairly constant since 1990.

Interesting fact is, that recovery for recycling did not exceed 15% until 1990. An increase in infrastructure and market demand for recovery over the last decades resulted in the growth in the recovery rate to 33.2% in 2008.

Benefits of recycling

Recycling has several environmental benefits, such as: reducing GHG emissions, which contribute to global warming, or - reducing air and water pollution associated with making new products from raw materials.

Environmental Protection Agency estimated that recycling and composting of 83 million tons of MSW saved 1.3 quadrillion Btu of energy, which is an equivalent of 10.2 billion gallons of gasoline. It reduced 183 million metric tons of CO2. This achievement is comparable to removing the emissions from 33 million passenger cars over a year.

Recycling only 1 ton of aluminum cans saves up more than 207 million Btu – the equivalent of 1665 gallons of gasoline, or 36 barrels of oil.

Other essential, but more difficult to calculate benefits of the MSW recycling are: better health of the population and more sustainable economy.

Disposing of MSW

Since 1990, the total amount of trash going to landfills dropped from 142,3 million to 135.1 million tons in 2008.

The discard rate per person per day (after recycling, composting and combustion for energy recovery) decreased from 2.51 in 1960 - when practically no recycling occurred - to 2.43 contemporary.

Municipal Solid Waste Source Reduction Initiatives

msw container Municipal waste source reduction (or waste prevention) programs aim to change people behavior and help them to find and implement less waste-producing practices and incorporate them into an everyday routine as well as to find alternative uses for waste materials without having to dispose of or recycle them.

Since the late 1980 many states have launched initiatives aimed to reduce municipal solid waste generation. Most states are active in MSW source reduction, however the efforts vary across the country.

Ten states, including California, Colorado, Minnesota, New York and Texas have demonstrated significant commitment to MSW reduction by implementing a comprehensive municipal waste reduction action plans.

The MSW Source Reduction Program covers the 5 main areas:

  • Source Reduction Planning: encouraging waste reduction through goal setting and research;
  • State In-house Programs: implemented within state governments;
  • Residential Programs: actions applied within the homes of residents;
  • Commercial Programs: addressed to business and industrial workplaces; and
  • Support for Local Governments: waste reduction through financial and technical assistance.

39 of the states focus primarily on commercial programs educating the business community on finding ways to reduce waste generation and reuse products.

23 of the states support residential programs. The most popular efforts includes backyard composting and consumer purchasing education campaigns.

27 states have adopted In-House programs. They focus primarily on procurement and developing office policies on source reductions.
Successful examples of SMW source reduction initiatives include:

  • Minnesota sponsored workshops on environmentally responsible purchasing for public sector employees, focusing on reduction common waste streams through responsible purchasing decisions.
  • Massachusetts provided technical assistance to business through the WasteCap partnership program, which offer free consulting on source reduction to all businesses in the state.

The benefits of source reduction programs are: prevention of waste generation, increased efficiency and enhanced conservation of natural resources.

Air and Waste Management Association


Solid Waste Magazine


Leading Companies
Zero Waste Skepticiam
Facts about Municipal Solid Waste

External Links

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