Background on Waste

Let’s face it, we all get caught up in the busyness of our lives and it’s hard to step back sometimes and realize what impact you are making on the planet. We have such a strong throwaway culture that most of the time people don’t think twice about how their seemingly small decision affects the bigger picture.

One of my favorite quotes that emphasizes this is “it’s only one straw” said 7 billion people.

Growing up in this society, it took a while for me to notice anything was wrong. We always tried to not waste food and to reuse items in our house as much as we could, but our actions were driven by saving money rather than reducing our environmental impact. The most we did was recycle, and at the time, that felt like enough.

As I got older, I started realizing just how inefficient our supply system was. SOO many things are MEANT to be thrown away, and for the longest time, I thought nothing of it because it was deemed “normal.”

In recent years, after learning more, I’ve tried scaling back on my personal waste. But this got me wondering… what does waste actually look like?

For anyone wondering the same thing, or wanting to share more information with others, here’s some info about waste in the U.S.

What is Waste?

The U.S. EPA refers to municipal solid waste as “various items consumers throw away after they are used.”
Includes: bottles and corrugated boxes, food, grass clippings, sofas, computers, tires and refrigerators
Does NOT Include: construction and demolition debris, municipal wastewater sludge, and other non-hazardous industrial wastes

This municipal solid waste includes items that can be:

  • recycled – convert (waste) into reusable material
  • composted – decayed organic material used as a plant fertilizer
  • combusted with energy recovery – conversion of non-recyclable waste materials into usable heat, electricity, or fuel
  • and landfilled – a place to dispose of refuse and other waste material by burying it and covering it over with soil, especially as a method of filling in or extending usable land

Where the first three repurpose an item in one way or another, the last simply buries items regardless of how useful they still are.

What are the numbers?

In order to understand where we are now, let’s look at the past.
According to the U.S. EPA, the total generation of municipal solid waste in the United States is as follows (units in U.S. short tons unless otherwise noted):

U.S. Population (people)179.3 million325.1 million
Total Waste88.1 million267.8 million
Recycling + Composting5.6 million
(6.4% of total waste)
94.2 million
(35.2% of total waste)
Combusted with energy recovery0
(0% of total waste)
34 million
(12.7% of total waste)
Landfilled82.5 million
(93.6% of total waste)
139.6 million
(52.1% of total waste)


  • From 1960 to 2017, the U.S. population increased by 181%, whereas the total waste generation increased by 304%.
  • From 1960 to 2017, the average waste per person increased from 2.68 lbs per person per day to 4.51 lbs per person per day – an increase of 1.83 lbs per person per day, or 168%.
  • Recycling + Composting increased from 6.4% to of generated waste in 1960 to 35.7% in 2017.
  • Combustion with energy recovery increased from 0% of generated waste in 1960 to 12.7% in 2017.
  • The disposal of waste to landfills has decreased from 93.6% of generated waste in 1960 to 52.1% in 2017.

What’s in the waste?

In 2017, total generated municipal solid waste was comprised of the following:

25% – paper and paperboard
15.2% – food
13.2% – plastics
13.1% – yard trimmings
9.4% – metals
6.7% – wood
6.3% – textiles
4.2% – glass
3.4% – rubber and leather
1.9% – other
1.5% – misc. inorganic wastes

How to reduce your waste

As general rule of thumb: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rot, Recycle

  1. Refuse
    • refuse to use something. Examples would be to ask for a drink without a straw at a restaurant, forego disposable utensils when getting takeout, or not buy something in single-use packaging.
  2. Reduce
    • reduce the amount you’re throwing away. Examples would be to eat leftovers, skip out on buying disposable items, or buying in bulk (larger containers use less materials!)
  3. Reuse
    • reuse as much as you can. Examples would be hitting up yard sales instead of buying new furniture, getting secondhand clothes, or taking the time to fix something that’s broken rather than replacing it with a new one.
  4. Rot
    • compost, compost, compost! If you aren’t into doing it yourself, there are many farmers or city-led initiatives that will accept your rotting items.
  5. Recycle
    • when all else fails, turn to recycling before throwing it in the trash. Most places have recycling programs, and the harder-to-recycle items are now even starting to have recycling options through companies such as Terracycle (more on that later!)

Want to know more about each waste?

I’ll be providing an overview of each waste stream and how they tie into the big picture soon, so subscribe to stay tuned!

Have more questions?

Submit a question below and I will do my best to research and update you and/or these posts with the answers!