October 26, 2010 | General

The State Of Garbage In America

BioCycle October 2010, Vol. 51, No. 10, p. 16
Latest national data on municipal solid waste management find estimated generation is 389.5 million tons in 2008 – 69 percent landfilled, 24 percent recycled and composted, and 7 percent combusted via waste-to-energy.
Rob van Haaren, Nickolas Themelis and Nora Goldstein

BioCycle, in collaboration with the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) of Columbia University, conducts the biennial State of Garbage In America survey on the generation and management of municipal solid waste (MSW) in the United States. The State of Garbage In America Report, launched by BioCycle in 1989, is unique in that actual tonnage data is collected from each individual state, with waste characterization studies solely used for validation of the numbers. This is the 17th nationwide survey, reporting data from calendar year 2008.
The data was gathered during the spring of 2010, using an Excel form that was e-mailed to the solid waste management departments in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. All entries were checked and validated using results of former State of Garbage in America reports, EPA waste characterization studies, and also a survey of Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF) carried out by Eileen Berenyi of Government Advisory Associates (GAA). We greatly appreciate the time spent and the contributions made by the solid waste and recycling officials listed at the end of this report. Thanks to their help and expertise, we can present the 2010 edition of “The State of Garbage in America.” All tonnages are reported in U.S. tons (1.1 U.S. ton = 1 metric ton).

In 2004, the EEC was invited by BioCycle to collaborate on a science-based version of the State of Garbage survey. The State of Garbage methodology uses the principles of mass balance: all MSW generated is equal to the MSW landfilled, combusted in waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, composted and/or recycled. This relies on the assumption that all management methods employed for municipal solid waste are quantified/tracked and reported to the state agencies. According to our survey results, at least 15 states require waste management companies and local government agencies to report annual tonnages. Nineteen states reported that there was no such requirement and another 12 states did not respond to this question. Only five states did not complete the 2010 State of Garbage survey. For states where companies and local agencies are not required to report to the state, disposal data can and, in most cases, are still collected from waste management facilities. This is especially true for landfills and waste-to-energy plants, since they track all of the disposed waste by simply weighing incoming and outgoing trucks. Composting and materials recycling facilities, however, may not have scales and/or are commercial or public enterprises that are not obligated to report tonnages received and processed to local or state government agencies.
An important part of MSW accounting in the State of Garbage survey is “filtering out” non-MSW materials that may be included in the states’ responses. The BioCycle/EEC survey uses the US EPA definition of Municipal Solid Waste, which includes: residential and commercial wastes like paper, plastic packaging, bottles and cans, tires, yard trimmings, batteries, furniture, appliances, etc. Typical “non-MSW” materials are: industrial and agricultural wastes, construction and demolition (C&D) debris, automobile scrap and sludge from wastewater treatment plants. To account for these non-MSW materials, survey respondents were asked to provide a more specific breakdown of the waste streams being reported. This was done either by estimate or from measured tonnages. The non-MSW tonnages were automatically subtracted in the Excel spreadsheet from the total generation reported.
Over the past six years (with the survey conducted every two years), the methodology developed by EEC has been further refined. In the 2008 State of Garbage In America Report (December 2008), MSW management was divided into three main categories: Landfilling, Waste-to-Energy and Recycling. After much discussion and with input from survey participants, it was decided to divide the “recycling” category into materials recycling (i.e., recovery of paper, metals, glass, plastics) and organics recycling via composting (which includes mulch production). The tonnage sent to composting facilities appears to be tracked in many states, and EEC believes that it is useful to distinguish composting and mulching from other material recovery methods. As a result, recycled and composted tonnages are reported in separate columns in Table 2. It is quite likely that some smaller composting operations have, inadvertently, not been included and, therefore, the total MSW composted may be somewhat higher than reported.
In the 2010 survey, an additional “filter” on the reported composting/recycling rates for different materials was introduced: The total amount of MSW generated was estimated using the 2008 State of Garbage national number of per capita generation (1.38 tons/capita; 2006 data) and the population of the state. EEC then used EPA’s MSW Facts And Figures waste characterization report (EPA, 2008) of the average (U.S.) percent composition of MSW times the population of the state to estimate how many tons of each material were generated in the state. On the basis of this information, we were able to “filter out” reported recycling tonnages that were “through the roof,” most likely due to the inclusion of non-MSW materials (e.g., automobile scrap). Reported recycling tonnages that were higher than the estimated waste generation of a particular material were decreased to 100 percent of the estimated waste generation.


For a consistent determination of the tonnages to report in the survey, the following protocol was established: Use reported tonnage unless any of the following factors were evident:
1. States did not report a recycled material tonnage: The GAA MRF survey reported MRF-processed tonnages that in general were one half of the recycling tonnages reported by the states. Therefore, EEC concluded that approximately 50 percent of all recycled materials are sent directly to paper and other recycling plants and do not pass through MRFs for processing. Thus, states that did not report a recycling number were assigned a tonnage equal to two times the MRF tonnage in the state, as reported by the GAA survey.
2. Overestimate of recycled tonnages: As discussed earlier, for any recycled material where the state-reported tonnage was in excess of the EPA’s average estimate of waste generation, the recycling of that material was set to 100 percent of the generated material.
3. Data not reported: In a few cases where tonnages were not reported (recycled, composted, waste-to-energy, landfilled) or numbers were obviously too low or too high, cross-reference was made to the 2006 data, as reported in the 2008 State of Garbage in America survey.
4. Underreporting of recycled tonnages: When the recycling tonnage appeared to be underreported by the state, and the GAA MRF number was not higher than that provided by the state, the data is marked as “Likely to be underreported.”

Table 1 summarizes the State of Garbage survey data from 1989 through 2008. The overall results of the 2010 State of Garbage in America survey (2008 data) are: An estimated 389.5 million tons of MSW were generated, most of which (270 million tons) were sent to landfills. This represented 69 percent of the total MSW and was three million tons higher than two years ago. An estimated 7 percent, nearly 26 million tons, were combusted with energy recovery in WTE plants. The total recycling and composting tonnages for 2008 were estimated to be close to 94 million tons, or 24 percent of the total MSW. They consisted of over 69 million tons of materials recycled and 24.5 million tons of yard trimmings and some food wastes composted or mulched.
It is interesting to note that national MSW generation dropped between 2006 and 2008, from 413 million tons in the 2008 State of Garbage Report to 389.5 million tons in this 2010 Report. This may be a reflection of the economic downturn, as well as the more detailed exclusion of non-MSW materials that was done in the survey of 2008 data.
Table 2 provides the main results of the 2008 data, by state. The “Reported MSW Generated” column shows the raw generation number as provided by each state. It may differ from the “Estimated MSW Generation” column because of differences between definitions of MSW, as discussed earlier. Some states base this number on an extrapolation of occasional measurements of household MSW generation. The “Estimated” generation number is a summation of the MSW sent to each of the four recovery and disposal methods. All tonnages have been adjusted for import and export, assigning waste to the place of generation, not where it was disposed (e.g., out-of-state landfills). On average, 1.28 tons of MSW were generated per capita in 2008. This is 0.10 tons/capita lower than 2006. Hawaii reported the highest per capita generation number: 2.89 tons/capita. However, it has to be taken into account that the population number is skewed by the high influx of tourists – around 7 million people visit Hawaii each year.
Figure 1 provides a breakdown, by region, of recycling, composting, combustion and landfilling rates. According to the 2008 state data, the West leads the nation in recycling (35%) and composting (11%). New England has the second highest recycling rate (22%), followed by the Mid-Atlantic (20%). The Midwest has the second highest composting rate (10%), followed by New England and the Mid-Atlantic (7%). With respect to combustion with energy recovery, New England is the leader by combusting 39 percent of its MSW. The Mid-Atlantic region is a distant second with 14 percent of the MSW combusted. The Rocky Mountain region has the highest landfilling rate (88%), followed by the Great Lakes (81%), the South (79%) and the Midwest (78%).


The tonnages of specific materials recycled in 2008 are shown in Table 3. All but 10 states and the District of Columbia provided data on at least one recycled material. Sixteen states had data available on tons collected through single-stream recycling programs; only four states reported aggregated dual stream data. Table 3 shows the “as reported” tonnages for various materials. It can be seen that some states have reported material recycling figures that most likely included non-MSW, primarily in the categories “Iron and Steel Scrap” and “Other Metals.” States that were adjusted for this in the final results of Table 2 are: Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Washington (see item No. 2 in section above titled “Protocol Used For Recycling Tonnages”).
The State of Garbage survey requested information on the number of curbside recycling collection programs and population served by curbside recycling in each state, as well as the number of MRFs, drop-off sites and “pay-as-you-throw” programs. Only 25 states had data on curbside programs, and only 21 reported the population served by such programs. These states reported a total of 4,371 curbside recycling programs; New York State did not report a number, but according to the 2006 State of Garbage in America Report (2004 data), New York had 1,500 curbside programs. The total population served by these programs amounts to 87.9 million, of which 23.6 million is from California. California did not report a curbside population number, but this information was obtained from the website (, 2010).
The State of Garbage survey also requested information on the number of facilities composting yard trimmings in each state. Thirty states reported a total of 2,284 facilities. New Jersey reported the most sites (345) that compost over 1.9 million tons of MSW yard trimmings.

The State of Garbage results for number of landfills and WTE plants, gate (“tipping”) fees for these facilities, and remaining landfill capacity are shown in Table 4. Where states did not provide 2008 data, data from the 2008 State of Garbage Report (2006 data) were used. A total of 1,908 MSW landfills were reported. (Interestingly, when BioCycle conducted the first State of Garbage In America survey in 1989, there were almost 8,000 MSW landfills in the U.S.). Average gate (“tipping”) fees have increased slightly since the 2008 survey; landfill and WTE gate fees were, on average two dollars higher than in 2006, at $44.09 and $67.93 per ton of handled waste, respectively.
Another section of the 2010 State of Garbage survey requested data on the recovery of landfill gas (LFG). Twenty-eight states reported that 260 out of 1,414 landfills recovered landfill gas. However, some of the non-LFG landfills may be closed. A total of 95 landfills reported volumes of LFG captured: 59.1 billion cubic feet. Since LFG generally contains 500 Btu per cubic foot, the energy recovery from these 95 landfills was about 30 trillion Btu. This amount represents only 20 percent of the total LFG energy used by the U.S. in 2004 (150 trillion Btu), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA, 2006). Since this is the first time that LFG capture was included in the State of Garbage survey, it is hoped that more states will collect and report such data in future surveys.

Waste imports and exports are shown in Table 5. There is an obvious discrepancy between the totals of these categories: imported MSW was almost two times higher than exported MSW. EEC believes this is due to the fact that imported wastes are much better tracked than those exported. MSW imports/exports from other countries, primarily Canada, were excluded where possible.
Table 6 shows materials banned from landfills. It can be seen that whole tires are banned from landfills in almost every state, except Alabama, Alaska, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming. Oil and lead-acid batteries are banned from most U.S. landfills as well. Twenty-five states ban leaves, grass and/or brush from landfill disposal. Seven states have bans on disposal of containers and/or paper. Three states do not allow disposal of construction and demolition debris.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues an annual report on MSW generation and management in the U.S. (MSW Facts & Figures, 2008). The State of Garbage methodology differs from that of EPA’s in several ways. First, the EPA characterizes the MSW stream for the whole nation and not on a state-by-state basis. Second, the EPA bases its results on the aggregate of several sources, including estimates of materials and products generated and their life spans, key industry associations and businesses, and waste characterization studies and surveys conducted by governments, the media and industry.
Another important difference is that EPA estimates the tonnage landfilled as the difference between its estimate of MSW generated minus its estimate of what is sent to composting, recycling or WTE plants. The State of Garbage methodology, however, is based purely on tons managed via all four methods in the responding states. Table 7 provides data from the US EPA’s MSW Facts And Figures Report (2008 data) compared to the 2010 State of Garbage in America Report (2008 data). As a result, the EPA estimate of MSW landfilled is 98.5 million tons less than what is actually disposed in MSW landfills according to the BioCycle/EEC measurements.
Rob van Haaren received his Earth Resources Engineering from the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering of Columbia University. His thesis research was sponsored by the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia ( He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate and Research Associate at the Center for Life-Cycle Analysis, Columbia University. Nickolas J. Themelis is Director of the Earth Engineering Center and Stanley-Thompson Professor Emeritus, Earth and Environmental Engineering (Henry Krumb School of Mines) at Columbia University. Nora Goldstein is Editor of BioCycle.


Berenyi, E.B., 2007-2008 Materials Recycling and Processing in the United States Yearbook & Directory (5th Edition), Governmental Advisory Associates, Inc., Westport, Connecticut.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2008. epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2008rpt.pdf.
U.S. Energy Information Administration:


BioCycle and the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University would like to thank the following state solid waste management and recycling/composting officials for their assistance with the 2010 State of Garbage In America Report. We greatly appreciate their time and willingness to participate in this national survey. Gavin Adams, Alabama; Douglas Buteyn, Alaska; Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Arizona; Nancy Carr, California; Wolf Kray, Colorado; Judy Belaval, Connecticut; Anne M. Germain, Delaware; Shannan Reynolds, Florida; Randy Hartmann, Georgia; Lane Otsu, Hawaii; Dean Ehlert, Idaho; Ellen Robinson, Illinois; Michelle Weddle, Indiana; Becky Jolly, Iowa; Christine Mennicke , Kansas; John Rogers, Louisiana; George MacDonald, Maine; David Mrgich, Maryland; JohnFischer, Massachusetts; Matt Flechter, Michigan; Arlene Vee, Minnesota; Mark Williams, Mississippi; Brenda Ardrey, Missouri; Bonnie Rouse, Montana; Steve Danahy, Nebraska; Nevada Division of Environmental Protection – Bureau of Waste Management, Nevada; Donald E. Maurer, New Hampshire; Edward Nieliwocki, New Jersey; Connie Pasteris, New Mexico; Scott Menrath, New York; Scott Mouw, North Carolina; Steve Tillotson, North Dakota; Andrew Booker, Ohio; Mary Lou Perry, Oregon; Mike McGonagle, Rhode Island; Elizabeth Rosinski, South Carolina; Steven Kropp, South Dakota; Department of Environment and Conservation, Tennessee; Kari Bourland, Texas; Ralph Bohn, Utah; Jeff Bourdeau, Vermont; Stephen Coe, Virginia; Gretchen Newman, Washington; Cynthia Moore, Wisconsin; Craig McOmie, Wyoming.

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