National Waste & Recycling Association

The National Waste & Recycling Association is the trade association that represents the private sector solid waste and recycling industry. Visit and learn more the Association at wasterecycling.org.

Begin with the Bin is a public education resource developed by the National Waste & Recycling Association.

The National Waste & Recycling Association is located at:
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T: 800-424-2869, 202-244-4700
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E: info@wasterecycling.org
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Media: Chris Doherty at 202-364-3751 or cdoherty@wasterecycling.org.

Begin with the Bin

Begin with the Bin is a public education resource developed by the National Waste & Recycling Association. The site offers information and resources related to the waste and recycling industries. Visit and learn more at beginwiththebin.org.

Industry Frequently Asked Questions

Solid Waste

What is waste?

The regulatory definition of “solid waste” is very broad. In addition to residential trash wastes generated by restaurants, office buildings and similar business establishments (“commercial waste”), manufacturing companies and wastewater treatment plants (“industrial waste”), and waste generated by building or tearing down buildings and other structures (“construction and demolition debris”, also known as “C&D waste”) are all classified as non-hazardous solid wastes. Even hazardous and medical wastes are considered to be solid wastes, but they are more strictly regulated by federal agencies and the states. Technically, solid waste goes beyond those kinds of wastes to include any solid, liquid, or contained gaseous material that is discarded by being disposed of, incinerated, or recycled.

Are there different kinds of waste?

The federal regulations developed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act divide wastes into two broad categories: hazardous and non-hazardous. Hazardous wastes are regulated under RCRA Subtitle C, while non-hazardous wastes are regulated under RCRA Subtitle D.

Hazardous Waste

What is hazardous waste?

In general, hazardous wastes are those known to be harmful to human health and the environment when not managed properly. Hazardous wastes can be one of two types: listed wastes or characteristic wastes. Listed wastes are those wastes contained on one of the four lists published in the Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFR Part 261). Currently, more than 500 wastes are listed as hazardous wastes. Characteristic wastes do not appear on these lists, but have at least one of the following qualities: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity. In addition, a number of states have listed certain wastes as hazardous.

How much hazardous waste is generated?

In 2003, 30.18 million tons of hazardous waste, as covered under the RCRA were generated. Almost 22 percent of the total hazardous waste was generated in Texas, followed by Louisiana (15.1 percent), and Kentucky (8.1 percent).

How is hazardous waste managed?

Different methods, based on the type of waste, are used to ensure protection of human health and the environment. These include reclamation and recovery (e.g., metals and solvent recovery, energy recovery); destruction or treatment prior to disposal at another site (e.g., incineration, chemical reduction, biological treatment, neutralization); and disposal (land treatment, landfills, surface impoundments, deep-well injection).

How many hazardous waste management facilities are in operation?

1,389 hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities operated in the United States in 2011. The District of Columbia, New Hampshire and Wyoming were the only jurisdictions without such a facility.

How much hazardous waste is shipped to another state or territory for treatment and disposal?

Of the total hazardous waste generated, 5.9 million tons (15.1 percent) were shipped to another state or out of the country for treatment, storage or disposal. All states, Guam, the Navajo Nation, and the Trust Territories exported some portion of the hazardous waste they generated. More than 40 percent of the hazardous waste exported originated from five states: California, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas.

Non-Hazardous Waste

What are “non-hazardous wastes”?

According to the EPA regulations, non-hazardous wastes are those not categorized as hazardous waste. Typically, they are called “solid waste”. Municipal solid waste is the garbage generated by homes and businesses and institutions. Other kinds of solid wastes include sludge from wastewater treatment plants, water supply treatment plants, and air pollution control facilities; and other discarded material, including solid, liquid, semi-solid, or containerized gaseous material resulting from industrial, commercial, mining, and agricultural operations, and community activities.

How much solid waste is generated?

Data on the total amount of solid waste generated each year is not available because an unknown quantity it is managed on properties that are owned by generators. However, in a report from the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, the amount managed off-site was 544.7 million tons (as reported by accepting facilities).

How is solid waste managed?

Of the 544.7 million tons of wastes managed off-site in the EREF study, 63.5 percent was managed in municipal solid waste landfills, 20.9 percent in material recycling facilities, 5.8 percent in incinerators, 5.1 percent in construction and demolition landfills, and 4.8 percent in compost facilities. More recent estimates put the non-hazardous solid waste universe at 621 million tons.

Who owns the solid waste management facilities?

Private companies own 52.6 percent of the off-site facilities that manage solid waste and the public sector owns 47.4 percent. The private sector operations are owned by publicly traded companies (traded on the stock market) and by privately-held companies. Publicly-traded companies own 40.9 percent of the facilities and privately-held companies own 11.7 percent.

Who manages the generated solid waste?

Private sector companies managed 69 percent (376.9 million tons) of the 544.7 million tons managed off-site and the public sector managed the remaining 31 percent, or 167.8 million tons.

Municipal Solid Waste: Background

What is municipal solid waste?

Municipal solid waste, also called trash, garbage, refuse and rubbish, is the stuff we throw away every day. In our trash are everyday items such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspaper, appliances, and batteries that we do not need any more. MSW is generated by people and by businesses. Not counted as MSW are other discarded materials such as construction and demolition debris, wastewater treatment sludge, and non-hazardous industrial wastes. Although these materials often end up in MSW landfills, they can also be sent to non-MSW landfills for disposal.

What’s in municipal solid waste?

According to the EPA’s Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012, paper and paperboard products are the largest component in the trash we generate (27.4%) followed by food waste (14.5%), yard trimmings (13.5%), plastic (12.7%), metals (8.9%), rubber/leather/textiles (8.7%), wood (6.3%), glass (4.6%), and other materials (3.4%).

How much garbage do Americans generate in a year?

According to the U.S. EPA, 251 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) were generated in 2012 – down from 254.1 million tons in 2007. In 1960, only 88.1 million tons were generated. The chart below graphically depicts MSW generation over time. In the past, the amount of garbage we produced was a function of the size of the population and the strength of the economy. “” Population growth alone used to guarantee that more waste would be generated. This is no longer the case. Significant changes in the materials we use on a daily basis and in how they are managed have greatly slowed down the growth in overall waste generation. For instance, the increase in backyard composting and mulching lawnmowers in the 1990s led to less yard waste being generated. Similarly, the increased use of lighter weight packaging materials such as plastic and the decline in the use of printed paper has had a substantial  effect on the amount of waste created. Perhaps the biggest impact is the adoption of “zero waste” policies by manufacturers and retailers. The result of these trends is simple: if garbage generation in the last two decades had increased at the same rate as in the previous two decades, America would have generated an additional 78 million tons of waste.

MSW Recycling Rates, 1960 to 2012

How much trash does one person make in a year?

Each American made 4.38 pounds per day in 2012 – a decrease of almost a quarter-pound per day from 2007. In 1960, an individual only generated 2.68 pounds per day. That 4.38 pounds per day, though, includes your share of the waste produced by America’s businesses because EPA’s per-person data includes both residential and commercial waste. EPA estimates that 55-65 percent of our garbage is generated in our homes and that 35-45 percent is generated by businesses or institutions.

As noted above, individual waste generation has gone down since 2007. This is a result of the same factors that caused overall waste generation to decline. Interestingly, studies show that a century ago, Americans produced almost as much waste, on a per-person basis, as we do today. Then we relied on coal to produce heat and energy in our homes. As a result, we had a lot of coal ash that had to be disposed of. Generation of coal ash from homes and businesses began declining in 1940. Then after World War II, as we became more prosperous and our consumer society began to take off, we began to buy more and more packaged goods. Today, containers and packaging make up 30 percent of the waste stream, followed by nondurable goods (such as newspapers and clothing and towels) with 20.5 percent of the waste stream, durable goods (refrigerators, computers, etc.) with 19.9 percent of the waste stream, food waste (14.5%) and yard waste (13.5%). Over the last decade, we have used slightly less packaging while seeing an increase in durable goods. As the materials and products we use continue to change, we will see more changes in our waste stream.

How much does waste “weigh” in a truck or a landfill?

The garbage that most people put in their trash cans is compacted in garbage trucks with other trash and then further compacted in a landfill. At the curbside, a cubic yard of trash will weigh between 100 and 200 pounds. Once it is compacted in a truck, it can weigh 350 to 400 pounds per cubic yard. Compaction at a landfill can increase the density even more.

How is our trash managed?

Municipal solid waste can be recycled, burned or landfilled. According to EPA, 86.6 million tons (34.5%) were recycled and composted in 2012, 29.3 million tons (11.7%) were incinerated, and 135 million tons (53.8%) were landfilled. Landfilling has been and remains the most popular method of waste management in the United States. The table below shows how MSW has been managed since 1960.

Municipal Solid Waste Management, 1960 to 2012 (million tons)
Management Method19601970198019902000200520112012
Generation 88.1 121.1 151.6 205.2 232.0 245.6 250.4 250.9
Recycling 5.6 8.0 14.5 29.0 51.2 58.4 86.9 86.6
Composting --- --- --- 4.2 16.5 20.6 20.7 21.3
Energy Generation --- 0.4 2.7 29.7 33.7 631.6 29.3 29.3
Landfilling and other disposal 82.5 112.6 134.4 145.3 140.3 142.3 134.2 135.0

What is the solid waste management hierarchy?

EPA promotes the solid waste management hierarchy as the best way to manage waste. Source reduction or waste prevention, which includes reuse, comes first, followed by recycling and composting. Next is energy recovery, which includes both incineration and landfill gas recovery. Waste that cannot be utilized in any of these ways should be properly treated and disposed of.

What is integrated waste management?

Many American communities have adopted an integrated approach to waste management that attempt to balance recycling, composting, and disposal. Source reduction is important, but the most effective waste reduction programs on the local level promote the use of mulching lawnmowers and backyard compost piles for yard waste. Aside from those programs, most households will most effectively reduce the amount of garbage by participating in recycling programs.

Source Reduction

What is source reduction?

Source reduction (which is also called waste prevention) means finding ways to reuse or otherwise manage materials so that they never enter the waste stream. Reusable beverage containers and mulching lawnmowers are good examples of source reduction. Source reduction also includes design, manufacture, purchase, or use of materials to reduce their amount or toxicity before they enter the municipal solid waste (MSW) management system. Substituting lighter weight materials (such as plastic) for heavier materials is a form of source reduction.

Recycling

What is recycling?

Recycling is the collection and processing of used into raw materials that can be used to manufacture new products. Making newsprint from old newspapers, new glass bottles from used glass bottles, new cans from used steel or aluminum  cans and new plastic bottles or other plastic products from plastic bottles are examples of recycling.

How are recyclables collected?

Recyclables are collected in a variety of ways. In curbside collection, residents place their recyclables on the curb for collection. The majority of Americans who live in urban or suburban single-family housing have curbside collection of recyclables. Drop-off centers or buy-back centers are centralized locations where people take their recyclables to deposit (drop-off center) or sell (buy-back center). In ten states and one territory, beverage containers are returned through programs in which a deposit paid on the container when it is bought is redeemed when the empty container is returned.

How many curbside collection programs and drop-off centers are in America?

In 2011, 9,800 curbside recyclables collection programs operated in the United States. These programs served 70 percent of the population. Curbside collection was most prevalent in the Northeast, where 85 percent of the population had access to this method, followed by the South where 79 was. Data for drop-off centers is not as recent, but in 1997, 12,694 drop-off centers operated in the United States. In some areas with sparse populations, drop-off centers may be the only option for the collection of recyclable materials.

Which states have deposit laws?

Ten states and one territory have beverage container deposit laws. Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Guam have nickel or dime deposits. Michigan has a dime deposit. In California, the consumer does not pay a deposit, as such, but the price of the beverage includes a “redemption value” which can be redeemed by the purchaser or by a recycling program operator. These states vary as to which beverage containers require deposits. In some states, deposits are paid only on beer and soft drink containers and in some states, water and fruit juice bottles also require a deposit.

What is a materials recovery facility (MRF)?

Collected recyclables are usually sent to a materials recovery facility where they are sorted and processed into marketable commodities for manufacturing.

How many material recovery facilities are in operation?

In 2012, 633 MRFs were operating in the United States. These facilities had an estimated total daily throughput of 98,449 tons per day.

How much of our trash is recycled?

According to the EPA we recycled or composted 87 million tons of our trash in 2012 for a 34.5 percent recycling rate. Recycling has steadily increased since 1960 when only 5.6 million tons, or 6.4 percent, of our garbage was recycled.

Measuring the recycling rate at the state or local level can be very challenging. In addition, comparing data between states can be misleading because they count different things. EPA has developed a methodology to help improve the accuracy of this data.

What is recycled?

Almost every component of the waste stream is being recycled. Some highlights from the 2012 EPA report:

  • 65.3 million tons, for a 37% product recycling rate
  • 416 pounds per person per year
  • 1.14 pounds per person per day
  • Corrugated boxes, newspapers/groundwood paper, non-groundwood printed paper (office paper, etc.), glass bottles and lead acid batteries are the most recycled by weight.
  • Lead-acid batteries, corrugated boxes, non-groundwood printed paper (office paper, etc.), steel cans and newspapers/groundwood paper have the highest recycling rates.

What is being done to increase the recycling rate?

For recycling rates to increase, participation in every phase of the recycling loop (collection, sorting and processing, remanufacturing) must occur. Residents and businesses need to put all of their properly prepared recyclables out for collection. We all need to buy products made with recycled content. Businesses need to manufacture more recycled-content products and become involved in local and state recycling organizations. Local governments need to improve the efficiency of collection programs (which might include hiring a contractor), practice full-cost accounting, and identify opportunities to increase recycling rates.

What costs more – recycling or disposal?

Just like garbage collection and disposal, recycling costs money. Recyclables must be collected and processed. And not all markets pay for recyclables. Some charge a fee to take them. Disposal also costs money. Garbage must be collected, transported to a disposal site and a “tipping fee” must be paid to the landfill or waste-to-energy facility. Moreover, costs vary across the country. Disposal prices, for instance, are higher in the Northeast than in other areas. Collection costs can vary from city to city, depending on population density, geography, frequency of collection, number of crew members on a truck, etc. As a result, the question of whether collecting and disposal of garbage costs more than recycling depends heavily on local circumstances. Assessing how recycling will impact your community requires a full appraisal of the environmental and economic benefits of recycling and waste disposal.

Markets for most recyclables, especially paper, were strong and relatively steady for a four year period that ended in 2008. Those healthy markets helped the economics of many curbside recycling programs. With the sudden, precipitous slide that paper, metal and plastic recycling markets took in 2009, many programs were forced to find operational efficiencies and shore up political support for their continuation. Since then, markets have rebounded. Recyclables, however, are among the most dynamic of all commodities. As a result, their value tends to follow that of virgin raw materials and supply-and-demand cycles.

Generally a new recycling program adds an “incremental”, or additional, cost to the overall cost of waste management. The challenge for recycling programs is to find ways to lower costs and do away with that incremental cost increase.

Can all trash be recycled?

Theoretically, yes, but the cost to recycle some materials will far exceed any benefit derived from doing so. At one time, EPA thought that 25 percent was a good national recycling goal. Then they raised the goal to 30 percent and now support a 35 percent goal.

Waste to Energy

What is combustion waste-to-energy facility?

Waste-to-energy facilities are specially designed furnaces for the combustion of garbage. They burn trash and recover the heat energy for alternative uses such as generating electricity or steam.

How many waste-to-energy facilities operate in America?

86 waste-to-energy plants were operating in America in 2012, down from 102 in 2000. The Northeast has 40 of these plants, with 22 in the South, 16 in the Midwest and 8 in the West.

Who owns these facilities?

The public sector and private companies each own half of the operating facilities.

How much garbage is converted into energy?

In 2012, 29.3 million tons, or 11.7 percent of America’s garbage, was managed by energy-from-waste facilities. In America, these facilities have capacity to process more than 97,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day. In most cases, the capacity is greater than the actual amount burned.

How much electricity is produced by waste-to-energy facilities?

The nation’s waste-to-energy facilities have the capacity to generate the energy equivalent of 2,790 megawatt hours of electricity, enough to power 1.6 million homes.

What remains after MSW is converted to energy?

When garbage is burned, ash is left behind, much in a fireplace. It is also extracted from the flue gases by pollution control equipment. Through the incineration process, the MSW volume is reduced by about 90 percent while the weight is reduced by about 75 percent (percentages vary from facility to facility).

How is ash managed?

Most is landfilled in MSW landfills or in monofills designed for ash. Some is reused for road bed construction. Ash is tested according to federal and state standards and has consistently passed these tests.

Do waste-to-energy facilities cause air pollution?

No. Waste-to-energy facilities must achieve compliance with the air pollution requirements of the Clean Air Act Section 129. They employ sophisticated air pollution control equipment including:

  • A mechanism that works like a giant vacuum cleaner with filter bags that clean the air of soot (particulates), smoke, and metals;
  • A scrubber that sprays a slurry of lime into the hot exhaust gas that neutralizes gases and improves the capture of certain metals;
  • Systems that convert nitrogen oxides (a cause of urban smog) to nitrogen by spraying ammonia into the hot flue gases; and
  • Systems that blow charcoal into the exhaust gases to absorb metals and control dioxin emissions.

Municipal Solid Waste Landfills

What is a MSW landfill?

Sound engineering underpins modern landfills, making them safer, more efficient and environmentally sound. Landfills are designed to ensure that the environment is protected including the groundwater, surface water, land and air and that public health is maintained.

After reducing, reusing, recycling, and waste conversion, landfills are used for the final disposition of any material that is managed otherwise. Read more about modern landfills.

How many landfills are operating in America?

In the early 1970s, about 20,000 landfills, most of which were actually unlined dumps, were being used. Today, as a result of the regulations imposed by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the dumps are closed and about 1,654 MSW landfills are operating in the 48 contiguous states. Figure 4 shows the decline in the number of landfills over time.

Who owns these landfills?

According to a report by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, the public sector owns two-thirds of U.S. landfills and the private sector owns one-third. Privately owned landfills are often built to serve a larger area than publicly owned facilities, which are usually built to serve the government agency that owns the facility. As a result, the private sector controls about twice as much landfill capacity as the public sector.

How much garbage is landfilled?

Landfilling is the most common way to handle our garbage. Of the 251 million tons of MSW generated in 2012, 135 million tons (53.8%) were landfilled.

Are we running out of landfill capacity?

No. On a national level, the United States has 20 years of disposal capacity. Some states are low on capacity. The Western and Pacific states have the greatest capacity while the Northeast states have the least capacity. The vigorous market for trash, however, helps ensure that landfills with capacity are filled.

How much does it cost to landfill a ton of garbage?

The average landfill tip or tipping fee in 2014 was about $48 per ton. A “tipping fee” is the price paid, usually on a per ton basis, to dispose of trash at a landfill. The “average” tipping fee is the “gate rate” for a ton of garbage. A gate rate is similar to the published prices for airline tickets or hotels, before discounts or contract prices (which could be higher or lower) are considered. Traditionally, the Northeast has had the highest tipping fees in the nation, while the South and Mountain West states have had the lowest.

Which costs more, landfilling or converting waste to energy?

Average tipping fees are lower at landfills than at waste-to-energy facilities, largely because of the high capital costs at the latter facilities.

Do landfills cause air pollution?

Not if properly managed. The organic portion of MSW will biodegrade over time when placed in a landfill because of naturally occurring microorganisms. Biodegradation initially proceeds under aerobic conditions (with oxygen) and produces carbon dioxide and water. After the oxygen is completely used, the biodegradation process continues under anaerobic conditions (without oxygen), which produce methane and in about equal proportions. During biodegradation, small quantities (less than one percent) of organic gases are also produced. Because methane and trace organic gases can affect human health and the environment, landfills install gas collection systems to extract the gases from the landfill and burn them with a 98 percent destruction efficiency. Landfill gas can be used as an alternative energy source. Hundreds of landfills currently produce clean energy this way.

Do landfills smell?

Decaying trash produces an odor that is offensive to some people. The smell associated with MSW can start prior to collection and can continue at the landfill during disposal and after burial. At the landfill, these odors can be minimized and controlled through a number of methods such as covering the waste every day, minimizing the area where the waste is deposited, installing and operating a gas-collection system, and masking the smell with deodorizers.

Managing Solid Waste Facilities to Prevent Odors is an Association research paper on odors management.

Can a landfill be used after it is closed?

Yes. Closed landfills and their buffer areas can be converted into recreational facilities (golf courses, ski resorts, parks, ballfields); building sites for commercial, industrial, and residential development; and nature and forest preserves. Most landfills have a post-closure plan that includes a strategy for final use of the property after closure.

Modern Landfills - A Far Cry from the Past is an Association White Paper that examines the many technological changes that have made landfills even more protective of the environment.