Americans produced an increasing amount of waste in the years after World War II. During that time, landfills became the most popular form of garbage disposal. When these began filling up in the 1970s, Americans opted for alternatives like recycling.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began reporting data on waste collection and disposal shortly after its founding in 1970. The agency uses the term municipal solid waste for trash that consumers throw away after use.
Paper and paperboard products accounted for the largest share of municipal solid waste in 2018 at 23%, followed by food at 21.6%, plastics at 12.2%, and yard trimmings (12.1%). The EPA does not include construction and demolition (C&D) debris, wastewater sludge, and non-hazardous industrial wastes as municipal solid waste.
Fifty-percent of municipal solid waste – 146 million tons – ended up in a landfill in 2018.
Americans recycled or composted about 32% of all municipal solid waste in 2018, the last year EPA data is available. That adds up to about 94 million tons of waste for the year. Another 11.8% or 35 million tons of waste was combusted with energy recovery a process of converting waste into heat, electricity, or fuel through combustion.
The percent of waste recycled in the US has stayed between 30% to 35% since the early 2000s. The amount of trash generated by US households has increased since then, from 243.5 million tons in 2000, to 292.4 million tons in 2018.
Plastic waste is on the rise
The US generated 35.7 million tons of plastic waste in 2018, an increase of about 40% since 2000 and a challenge for the recycling industry. Plastic is more difficult to recycle than other materials and costs more to process for recyclers. Due to those issues, 8.7% of all plastic waste was recycled in 2018, compared to 68% of paper and cardboard waste.
Nearly 12 times more plastic was sent to landfills than was composted or recycled.
In 2018, China placed strict limits on the imports of foreign trash. This led to a significant change in the recycling costs for US cities, which had relied on Beijing as its destination for municipal solid waste and recyclables.
In New York City, recycling cost the city $749 per ton of waste in fiscal year 2020, the most recent year available. This was up from the $670 a ton cost from fiscal year 2016.
Recycling used to create revenue for Philadelphia. Companies would pay the city to take its recyclable waste because once recycled, it could be sold for a profit. A 2019 report on its recycling program said the city would now pay for its recyclables to be processed, which they noted is similar to most other US cities.