What's This Rubbish?
The Environmental Protection Agency lumps residential trash and waste from businesses and institutions such as schools and hospitals into a category called Municipal Solid Waste (MSW for short). Residential waste actually makes up the major part of MSW – 55 to 65%. The following figures relate only to this segment of our garbage, excluding the large volume of industrial, construction and hazardous waste produced in the U.S. each year.
Tons of Trash
In 2010, Americans generated 250 million tons of trash. That's an average of 4.43 lbs. per person per day. Looking at it another way, if we fill a line of garbage trucks with all of this solid waste, those trucks could cross the US, from New York to Los Angeles, more than 100 times.
Of those 250 million tons, we recycled or composted 85 million tons or about 34% of the total trash we made. In fact, according to the Aluminum Association, more than 113,000 aluminum cans were recycled every minute.
Some of the 66% of MSW that wasn't recycled or composted was still put to use. A little less than 12% was burned for energy at combustion facilities.
Unfortunately, those plants also create CO2 and small amounts of hazardous air pollutants. This may be in part why combustion for energy recovery has decreased by 5 million tons since 2000.
In a less controversial waste-to-energy process, methane gas generated by decomposing garbage has begun to be collected at some landfills. It is then either used as natural gas or converted to electricity. The amount captured in a year translates to enough electricity to power an estimated 1.6 million homes. This landfill gas is also utilized as a cleaner gasoline alternative.
Reducing & Reusing
Here's more good news: the amount of waste produced per person has gradually decreased since its peak in 2005. Plus, though we dump 21% more per person than we did in 1980, we're also recycling considerably more. Just 10% of MSW was recycled in 1980 compared to the 34% reclaimed in 2010. The U.S. may still be at the top of the heap for worldwide trash production but we're moving in the right direction.