What do you throw away?

Did you toss something into a trash can today? If you are like most people, you probably did — on average, about seven pounds’ worth. Have you ever really thought about what you throw away? The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MoDNR) has thought about it and has studied it.

In September 2016, MoDNR began field work on a statewide waste composition study to better understand the types and amounts of materials sent to landfills. This study was completed in 2017.

The study involved collecting and sorting more than 250 samples of trash generated by households, institutions, businesses and industries — otherwise known as “municipal solid waste.” Each sample weighed more than 200 pounds and was hand-sorted into 48 categories. By the end of the study, more than 7,000 pounds of waste from 16 transfer stations and landfills was sorted and categorized.

collagewastesort

What do the results by weight show? You may be surprised:

  • Over 32 percent by weight of what we throw away falls into the “organics” category (food waste, wood, and yard waste).
  • The next largest category (26 percent) consists of paper products (cardboard, newsprint, office paper and compostable paper).
  • The single most prevalent material found was food waste, which accounted for about 15 percent of what was thrown away.
  • The second most prevalent material found was cardboard at more than 8 percent by weight.

The chart below reflects the composition percentages of the nine broad material categories.

Missouri Statewide Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Composition. Pie chart reflects the composition percentages of the nine broad material categories in Missouri landfills. Text reads "MSW Composition. Organics, 32.4%; Paper, 26%; Plastic, 15.3%; Inorganics, 12.7%; Textiles, 4.8%; Metal, 4.4%; Glass, 2.8%; Electronics, 1.2%; HHW, 0.4%.

The top ten components of residential, commercial and institutional waste are listed below. When summed, they account for over 59 percent of the overall municipal solid waste tonnage.

Top 10 Most Prevalent Materials in Statewide Municipal Solid Waste Stream. Bar graph reflects the top ten components of residential, commercial and institutional waste are listed below. When summed, they account for over 59 percent of the overall municipal solid waste tonnage from the study of Missouri landfills. Text reads "Top Ten Materials. Food Waste, 15%; Cardboard/Kraft Paper, 8.5%; Compostable Paper, 8.1%; Contaminated Film/Other Film, 5.9%; Wood - Painted/Stained/Treated, 4.5%; Mixed Recyclable Paper, 4%; Wood - Clean/Untreated, 3.7%; Remainder/Composite Organic, 3.5%; Disposable Diapers & Sanitary Products, 3.1%; Bulky Items/Furniture, 3.1%.

Municipal solid waste accounts for approximately 67 percent of all of the waste sent to landfills for disposal. The study also evaluated other waste streams including construction waste, demolition debris, industrial waste, special waste and “other” waste. The chart below illustrates Missouri’s combined waste stream.

Missouri Statewide Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Composition Disposed. Pie chart shows percentages of materials disposed of in Missouri landfills. Text reads "Combined Waste composition. Organics, 26.5%; Paper, 18.2%; Plastic, 11.4%; Inorganics, 15.3%; Textiles, 3.3%; Metal, 3.4%; Glass, 2%; Electronics, 0.9%; HHW, 0.4%; Non-MSW, 18.7%.

This is the third time that Missouri has conducted a waste composition study, with earlier studies conducted in 1998 and 2008. If you would like to learn more about the types and quantities of solid waste disposed of in Missouri landfills, all study information can be found on the MoDNR website.

Image of full curbside recycling bin on a curb, with Recycle More Recycle Better logo. Text reads: "recycle more, recycle better".

To bin, or not to bin? Now, there’s no question!

At times, you may find yourself confused about what you can and cannot put in your curbside recycling bin. Why? It’s possible that the information you’ve been given is outdated, hearsay, or just flat wrong. The Recycle More, Recycle Better guide solves this problem by listing the most up-to-date information on what can and can’t go in your curbside recycling bin.

 

Recycle More, Recycle Better flier. Pictures materials that can be recycled curbside or drop-off, and materials that can be recycled through other means, and that cannot be recycled in our area (Greater Kansas City).

The buck stops at the MRFs

We collaborated with the Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) to develop this guide. MRFs are the facilities where all your recyclables are taken to be sorted, baled and shipped off to be made into new products. The buck stops at the MRFs because they have the final say in what is and is not acceptable in all Kansas City metro area curbside and drop-off recycling programs.

That’s recyclable?

While the flier lists items most people know are recyclable such as cans, paper and plastic bottles, it also identifies some recyclable items that may surprise you:

  • Aerosol cans — Wasp spray, whipped cream, spray paint, or sunscreen— if it’s a metal spray can, it can be recycled. However, it must be empty and no longer make a “hiss” sound when the trigger is depressed.
  • Aluminum foil and pans — As long as they’re rinsed off, they’re recyclable. Scrunch foil into a ball shape to prevent it from accidentally mixing in with paper.
  • Paper cartons — Milk, soup, broth, juice boxes and wine cartons are all recyclable, even if they have a plastic lid. Rinse carton and put lid back on before recycling.
  • Planting pots and trays — As long as they’re rinsed off, they’re recyclable.

That’s not recyclable?

Unfortunately a lot of what you thought could go in your bin, should not. When items that can’t be recycled are mixed in with recyclable items, the result is what the recycling industry calls “contamination.” Some non-recyclables can contaminate an entire truckload of materials by lowering their value, if not negating it entirely. Less contamination means less waste sent to the landfill, and it can also mean less downtime for sorting equipment that can easily be broken by materials it was not meant to handle.

Here are the top offenders that should not go in your curbside bin:

  • Plastic bags and film — They clog up equipment and cause shutdowns at the recycling facility. These can be recycled at your local grocery or “big box” store. For a complete list of plastics that can and cannot be recycled in the metro area, including bags and film, visit our Plastics Recycling page.
  • Paper food containers and tableware — Whether its paper plates and cups (including paper coffee cups), or fast food, takeout and frozen food containers, they should not go in the bin. All of these items have a thin plastic coating that can’t be separated from the cardboard. This coating makes them neither recyclable nor compostable. For more information about paper food containers and tableware, check out our blog post on the subject.
  • Styrofoam — No type of Styrofoam product should go in your curbside bin. Foam has very low economic value. It also has a tendency to disintegrate into smaller pieces during transport that cling to other recyclables.
  • Pizza boxes — The clean top is recyclable. The greasy, food-covered bottom is not. However, you can compost the bottom if you have a compost bin.
  • “Tanglers” — This is an industry term for long, stringy items such as VHS tapes, shower curtains, extension cords, and garden hoses. Like plastic bags and film, tanglers clog up equipment and cause shutdowns at the recycling facility.

Over the next year, the MARC Solid Waste Management District, will be promoting this flier to area haulers, cities, and homeowners associations. In the meantime, download it and share with your friends, family, co-workers and neighbors who live in the Kansas City metro area. It is available for download in both 11 x 17 and 8.5 x 11 sizes.

For more information on recycling, visit RecycleSpot.org.

 

Image of female blowing a dandelion gone to seed, with blowing seeds morphing into recycling symbols/chasing arrows. Photo by Robert Couse-Baker, CC 2.0.

When NOT to recycle

Have you ever put something in the recycling bin that you’re not sure about?

  • If you don’t know if it’s recyclable, but hope it is…
  • If it has a recycling symbol or label on it, so you assume it must be okay…
  • If you’re pretty sure it’s not recyclable, but hope that somewhere down the line someone will be able to recycle it…

…You might be a wishful recycler! You may have the best of intentions, but improper recycling can hurt more than it helps. Take time to learn what CAN be recycled in your area.

If it has a symbol, is it always recyclable?

In a word, no. Just because something has a recycling symbol on it, or says “recycle,” “recyclable,” or “recycled content” does not mean you can definitely recycle it in our metro area.

ChasingArrowQuestionMarkArtboard 1_RSblog-350pxThe numbers you see inside the recycling symbol on plastic bottles are resin codes developed by the plastics industry to help them properly sort plastics for recycling. In the Kansas City metro area, for example, milk jugs (#2) and yogurt containers (#5) are recyclable. However, Styrofoam takeout boxes (#6) and antifreeze bottles (#2) are not. Contact your hauler to find out which types of plastic can be thrown in the bin.

Some items that say they’re “recyclable” may be in other parts of the country, but it might not be true in our area if there is no local end market for reuse, too little value in the material, or both.

“Made from recycled content” doesn’t always mean an item can be recycled again. For example, you may find a ballpoint pen that says it’s “made from recycled bottles.” That’s great— buying recycled is essential to closing the recycling loop — but it doesn’t mean you can recycle the pen.

The unintended consequences of wishful recycling

When you put an item in your recycling bin that isn’t accepted by your curbside program or drop-off facility, you’re merely relocating your trash: now someone at the recycling facility will have to throw that item away. You may also inadvertently contaminate other recyclables in the bin, which can lower their value or negate it entirely.

How? Let’s say you throw a glass pickle jar in your curbside recycling bin, even though your program does not accept glass. As the glass gets crushed in the recycling truck, glass shards and dust contaminate all the other recyclables they touch, lowering their value. Or, let’s say you throw a half-full can of paint thinner in the bin because it comes in a metal can, and your program accepts metal cans. Once that can is crushed in the recycling truck, the paint thinner could contaminate enough of the recyclables that the whole load has to go to the landfill.

What’s the solution?

So, what can you do to avoid “wishful recycling”? Only put items in your recycling bin that your program accepts. To find this information:

  • Contact your hauler or check the label attached to the top of your recycling bin.
  • For plastics, check out our Plastics Recycling page which clearly explains the type of plastics that are and are not recyclable in the Kansas City metro area.
  • Give us a call: (816) 474-8326.

For more information on recycling, visit RecycleSpot.org.

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.

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.