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Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling

Guide to the Facts and Figures Report about Materials, Waste and Recycling

EPA began analyzing data on waste and materials recycling more than two decades ago, and the Agency has data tables that go back to the 1960s. The Facts and Figures Report looks at generation, recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery, landfilling for a variety of materials and products and other pathways for food. The most recent data are from 2018. Data are in U.S. short tons unless specified.

On this page:

Sections of this Report and our Terminology

Looking for something specific? The A to Z guide is a great place to begin your search.

The main focus of the Facts and Figures report is measuring municipal solid waste (MSW). MSW, more commonly known as trash, comprises various items we commonly throw away. These items include packaging, food, grass clippings, sofas, computers, tires and refrigerators. In this analysis, however, EPA does not include materials that also may be disposed in non-hazardous landfills but are not generally considered MSW, including:

  • construction and demolition (C&D) debris;
  • municipal wastewater treatment sludges;
  • non-hazardous industrial wastes.

In 2013, EPA started including information on C&D debris generation, as this category of waste is a large part of the non-hazardous waste stream. Materials included in C&D are steel, wood products, drywall and plaster, brick and clay tile, asphalt shingles, concrete, and asphalt concrete. These materials are used in buildings, as well as in the road and bridge sectors. In 2018 EPA started including information on C&D debris management.

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National Overview

EPA looks at the five categories below in order to provide a national-level picture of recycling and materials management in America. Check out our National Overview page for more information. For additional pathways for food, please see Food: Material-Specific Data.

  • Generation refers to the weight of materials and products as they enter the waste management system from residential, commercial and institutional sources and before recycling, composting, combustion or landfilling take place. Pre-consumer (industrial) scrap is not included in the generation estimate. Source reduction activities, such as backyard composting of yard trimmings, take place ahead of generation.
  • Recycling is defined as the recovery of useful materials, such as paper, glass, plastic and metals, from the MSW stream, along with the transformation of the materials, to make new products to reduce the amount of virgin raw materials needed to meet consumer demands.
  • Composting is the decomposition of organic materials by aerobic microorganisms. Composting facilities manage the amount of moisture and oxygen and the mixture of organic materials for optimal composting conditions. The composting process emits heat, water vapor and biogenic carbon dioxide, reducing the raw organic materials in mass and volume to create compost.
  • Combustion with energy recovery is often called “waste-to-energy,” and as used in this report, refers to confined and controlled burning with energy recovery, which not only decreases the volume of solid waste destined for landfills, but can also recover energy from the waste burning process.
  • Landfilling refers to the MSW remaining after recycling, composting and combustion with energy recovery. These materials presumably would be landfilled in a discrete area of land or excavation that receives household waste. Some MSW, however, is littered, stored, or disposed onsite; or burned onsite, particularly in rural areas. Reliable estimates for these other disposal practices are not available, but the total amounts of MSW involved are assumed to be small.

EPA collects national level data about each of these categories and breaks the study down by materials and products as defined below. EPA tracks C&D separately.

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Materials and Products

The distinction between products and materials is that products are manufactured out of materials. Also, products are what people buy and handle, such as newspapers, bottles and cans. A material is a raw item before it is shaped into something else, such as a piece of leather before it is made into a glove. EPA tracks products to learn how people are consuming, using and discarding materials. This information allows the Agency to target activities that will ultimately maximize source reduction, recycling and composting of materials.

Check out our Frequent Questions page for more information.

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This report breaks down data by materials and products. This section discusses the breakdown by material. A material is a raw item before it is shaped into something else, such as a piece of leather before it is made into a glove. Total MSW generation in 2018 was approximately 292.4 million tons. The figure above shows the breakdown of MSW generation by material. Organic materials such as paper and paperboard, yard trimmings, and food continued to be the largest component of MSW. Paper and paperboard accounted for 23.1 percent, and yard trimmings and food accounted for another 33.7 percent. Plastics comprised 12.2 percent of MSW; metals accounted for 8.8 percent; and wood made up 6.2 percent. Glass followed at 4.2 percent and rubber and leather at 3.1 percent. Other made up 1.5 percent and miscellaneous inorganic wastes made up 1.4 percent of the MSW generated in 2018.

Check out Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures web page for more information.

EPA studies a variety of materials for this report. Each of the materials has its own page of information and data. The materials include:

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This report breaks down data by materials and products. This section discusses the breakdown by product.

Products are what people buy and handle, such as newspapers, bottles and cans. EPA considers products in these categories: durable goods, nondurable goods, and containers and packaging.

The breakdown of the 292.4 million tons of MSW generated in 2018 by product category is as follows: Containers and packaging made up the largest portion of MSW generated at 28.1 percent, or over 82 million tons. Durable goods made up over 19.5 percent (over 57 million tons) while nondurable goods made up about 17.3 percent (over 50 million tons). Food made up 21.6 percent (63.1 million tons), yard trimmings made up 12.1 percent (35.4 million tons) and other wastes made up 1.4 percent (about 4.1 million tons).

The materials composition of municipal solid waste generation by product category is illustrated in Figure 15 of the 2018 Data Tables. This figure shows graphically that generation of durable goods has increased very gradually over the years. Nondurable goods, along with containers and packaging, have accounted for the large increases in MSW generation.

The materials composition of nondurable goods in 2018 is shown in Figure 16 of the 2018 Data Tables. The materials composition of containers and packaging in MSW in 2018 is shown in Figure 17 of the 2018 Data Tables, and additional containers and packaging detail is shown in Figure 18.

Each of the products studied in each product category are compiled together on their respective pages.

The durable goods that EPA studies for this report include:  

The nondurable goods that EPA studies for this report include:

The containers and packaging that EPA studies for this report includes:

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