How much trash do you send to the landfill?

trashThe answer depends on who you ask and how you define “trash.” There are two main sources for nationwide solid waste management data in the United States:

The two sources use different methodologies and as a result provide different answers to the question. The EPA determines the size of the waste stream using manufacturing production data, estimates of product imports and exports and estimated product life. Estimates for the generation of food and yard waste are based on sampling studies. EPA has used this methodology consistently for over 40 years, which allows for analyses of long-term trends. EPA defines “municipal solid waste” — or trash, as most of us call it — as everyday items such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, cans, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, consumer electronics and batteries. These items come from homes, institutions such as schools and hospitals, and commercial sources such as restaurants and small businesses. EPA’s definition does not include municipal wastewater treatment sludge, industrial process waste, automobile bodies, combustion ash or construction and demolition debris.

The editors of BioCycle Magazine began a national survey in 1989 using state-gathered data from disposal, recycling and composting facilities. While this methodology uses actual tonnages, it should be noted that states do not define municipal solid waste consistently. For example, states often include non-hazardous solid wastes — such as construction and demolition debris and industrial waste — in their data, unlike the EPA.

So, what is the answer to the original question? How much trash DO you send to the landfill?

  • EPA estimates that the average American produced 4.38 pounds of trash per day in 2012. About a third of that was recycled and the remaining 2.87 pounds were burned or sent to a landfill.
  • The latest BioCycle national survey, conducted by Columbia University, estimates that each person generated 6.84 pounds of trash per day in 2011. Again, approximately a third of that was recycled or composted and the remaining 4.86 pounds were burned or sent to a landfill.

Stay tuned for a post that will look closer to home and assess regional data to better answer this question.

Q: What could weigh as much as 11 Great Pyramids of Giza in 2017?

A: The estimated amount of e-waste generated worldwide that year.

VintageTech-elecRecyc-KB_026The world will generate an estimated 71.1 million tons of used electrical and electronic products in 2017 — an increase of more than 30 percent over 2012 levels — according to a study published by the United Nations organization StEP (Solving the E-Waste Problem). Researchers evaluated the global magnitude of annual e-waste generation and presented the results on this interactive world map. The map uses 2012 data from 184 countries.

In 2012, the world generated almost 53.9 million tons of e-waste, an average of 43 pounds for each of the world’s 7 billion people. The U.S. generated the most waste with 10.4 tons (about 66 pounds per person) and China came in second, with 7.9 million tons (about 12 pounds per person). For those of you keeping track at home, this means the U.S. generates nearly 20 percent of the world’s e-waste.

companion study published in tandem with the StEP report provides a detailed analysis of the generation, collection and export of some used electronic products in the U.S. For example, in 2010, U.S. e-waste included nearly 258.2 million whole-unit computers, monitors, TVs and mobile phones totaling 1.6 million tons. The study found that a majority of materials collected were mobile phones, but that TVs and monitors made up more than half of the total weight. Of the e-waste generated, Americans recycled 66 percent of the total units, but only 56 percent of the total weight. This suggests that mobile phones are recycled more frequently than heavier items such as TVs and monitors.

In Kansas City we are fortunate to have numerous facilities that recycle e-waste. Find a convenient location by visiting

Proud to recycle

proudtorecyclegraphicWhen the MARC Solid Waste Management District conducted a survey in 2012, we learned that 67 percent of area residents are recycling more. But how do we feel about it? The Environmental Industry Associations published survey data in November 2013 which suggests Americans are filled with pride when they fill their recycling bins.

Major findings of the online survey include:

  • An overwhelming majority of Americans feel a sense of pride when they recycle and a sense of guilt when they toss a recyclable item in the trash.
  • Americans are split on what they will do with a recyclable item if a recycling bin is not nearby. Nearly three out of five people say they will keep the item until they can recycle it, but just over half also admit they will throw an item away if they can’t find a bin.
  • Most Americans — 74 percent — will make an extra effort to recycle items outside of their homes. More than half report that they are successful in recycling at work, but fewer than one in four people are successful when traveling,  shopping or walking along city streets, or when dining out (see graphic at right).

You can find detailed survey results through the Environmental Industry Associations website, or view the complete survey methodology here (PDF).

Recycling is an economic development tool

Niel_ChasingArrowsI_Neil1on1s028_crop_webRecycling is not just good for the environment. Recyclables have value. Recycling creates jobs. The process of turning collected recyclables into new products creates a chain of economic activity that can result in business expansion, increased tax revenue and other economic growth.

The “U.S. Recycling Economic Information (REI) Study” was commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in partnership with numerous states to determine the economic benefits of recycling to the national economy. This was a groundbreaking study that established an important benchmark for the economic impact of recycling and reuse.

The study was completed in 2001. At that time, the recycling and reuse industry included more than 56,000 establishments nationwide. Together, these businesses employed 1.1 million people, generated an annual payroll of $37 billion and grossed $236 billion in annual sales. The REI Study also documented the “indirect” impact of recycling on support industries, such as accounting firms and office supply companies. It found that the reuse and recycling industry indirectly supported 1.4 million jobs that have a payroll of $52 billion and produce $173 billion in receipts.

A similar Missouri study was conducted by the Environmental Improvement and Energy Resources Authority (EIERA). The “Missouri Recycling Economic Information Study (MOREIS)” found that in 2005, Missouri-based recycling programs provided more than 80,000 direct and indirect jobs with an annual payroll of more than $1.7 billion.

Over the past year, the MARC Solid Waste Management District has hosted a speaker series titled “Chasing Arrows, Growing Business: How Recycling Creates Jobs and Economic Opportunities.” The first speaker, Dr. Neil Seldman of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, provided the foundation for the series by explaining how recycling stimulates economic development through job creation. According to Dr. Seldman, “On a per-ton basis, sorting and processing recyclables alone sustain 10 times more jobs than landfilling or incineration.” He also led a workshop for local communities to learn how they can attract “end-users” of recyclable materials interested in relocating to cities and counties that generate the recyclables they seek.

The second speaker, Terry McDonald of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, Ore., provided a look at how the nonprofit sector can implement recycling-based businesses to fund programs and services. The organization’s 10 recycling enterprises divert more than 17 million pounds and generate more than $24 million in revenue annually. This revenue funds a comprehensive local housing program that includes 1,000 subsidized rental units, emergency services for nearly 50,000 adults a year, and job training and placement assistance for 1,000 people a year.

The third speaker, Dr. Dan Knapp from Urban Ore, located in Berkeley, Calif., has turned the concept of reuse into a multimillion-dollar business. His store diverts material from landfilling in several ways: a salvaging operation at the local transfer station; a drop-off program; and a trade program that collects materials from select locations. Urban Ore has become successful by being cost-competitive with disposal options.

The final speaker, scheduled for December, is Dr. Joseph Martinich from the University of Missouri – St. Louis. Dr. Martinich, the primary researcher for the MOREIS study, will provide additional insights to the economic impact of recycling in Missouri. His presentation will take place as part of the District’s Annual Meeting, Dec. 11, 2013, at Kauffman Foundation Conference Center. Register by contacting Lisa McDaniel, at

Don’t trash that dented can

coke can crushedResearchers at Boston University and University of Alberta found that people are more likely to toss a recyclable item in the trash if the item is imperfect or damaged. Participants in the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research,  normally recycled soda cans 80 percent of the time, but that rate dropped to just 20 percent if the cans were pre-crushed or dented.

The researchers also saw a similar outcome with paper. Participants would likely recycle full pieces of paper but would throw out scraps. The recycling rates for paper scraps went up when study participants were asked to write down what the paper scrap could be used for.

Study researcher Jennifer Argo says that people are psychologically hard-wired to believe that products that are damaged or that aren’t whole — such as small or ripped paper or dented cans — are useless, which leads us to trash them rather than recycle them. She and her colleagues noted that when the scraps were viewed as useful again — such as for writing — the recycle rate jumped back to 80 percent.

So next time you go to throw something out, look beyond the dent in the can or the rip in the paper and see its full recycling potential.

You can learn more about recycling in the Kansas City metro region at RecycleSpot.

photo credit: quinn.anya via photopin cc.

I want to be recycled

“Our trash could go on to live whole new life and serve a valuable purpose, if only more people would give it a chance.”

Can an ordinary plastic bottle aspire to become something bigger? A new public service advertising campaign introduced by the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful, encourages people to recycle and give their garbage another life. The ad creates an emotional connection to recycling by chronicling the journey of a plastic bottle that has dreams to see the ocean. The bottle realizes that dream by becoming part of a park bench made out of recycled plastic.

Image of a plastic bottle sitting in front of a park bench, from Keep America Beautiful campaign.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recently released figures, just under 35 percent of people across the nation recycle. Keep America Beautiful hopes this ad will inspire those individuals who do not recycle regularly to change their habits.

Visit IWantToBeRecycled to get a behind-the-scenes look at how trash can be transformed through recycling. Visit RecycleSpot to learn more about what you can do locally.

EPA releases new solid waste and recycling numbers

Since 1960, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has collected and reported data on the generation and disposal of waste in the United States. The EPA recently released figures for 2011, revealing long-term trends on what we are recycling and throwing away.

Long-term trends
What do these long-term trends show? In 1960, we generated 88 million tons of waste and recycled 6 percent of it (5.6 million tons). In 2011, we generated about 250 million tons of waste and recycled and composted about 87 million tons of it, for a recycling rate of 35 percent. But while we are recycling more, we are also generating more than we did in 1960.Line Graph showing amounts of waste Generated, Recycled, and Discarded- each in pounds per person. From 1960 - 2011.
How much of this increased generation can be attributed to population growth? If you take population into account, we find that individuals are recycling more and throwing away less than they did in 1960. Solid waste generation peaked in the year 2000.

Recycling in 2011
What are we best at recycling? Almost 84 percent of the 87 million tons we recycled was made up of paper and paperboard, yard trimmings and metals.

The EPA report also includes a breakdown of 2011 recycling rates of various products:

  • Auto batteries were recycled the most frequently, at 96.2 percent
  • Newspapers and mechanical paper made up 72.5 percent
  • Steel cans, 70.6 percent
  • Yard trimmings, 57.3 percent
  • Aluminum cans, 54.5 percent
  • Tires, 44.6 percent
  • Glass containers, 34.2 percent
  • PET bottles and jars, 29.2 percent
  • HDPE bottles, 21.0 percent

totalRecoveryThe EPA estimates that our recycling reduced more than 183 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions (equal to the greenhouse gas emissions from 34 million passenger vehicles) and saved more than 1.1 quadrillion Btu of energy (enough to power 10 million U.S. households for a year).

Discards in 2011
What are we still throwing away? Food waste represents more than 21 percent of our discards (see an earlier blog about reducing your foodprint). After food, plastics weigh in at nearly 18 percent and paper and paperboard still makes up 15 percent.Pie Chart depicting the percentages of different materials that make up total discarded municipal Solid Waste

Learn more
Learn more about what we throw away nationally (fact sheet, full report and infographic) and what you can do to make a difference locally.