The 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 Environmental Protection Agency’s Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: Facts and Figures reports.
- BioCycle Magazine’s State of Garbage in America (PDF) surveys conducted with the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University.
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.