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A Primer on Solid Waste

History of Garbage - with timeline
Municipal Solid Waste(MSW)
How Different Types of Waste Stack Up
Measuring Waste
A Growing Problem


The recycling symbol - a triangle with three arrows Image of a garbageman You might think you have little in common with the typical young person of 2,000 or even 200 years ago. But chances are that both you and your ancient counterpart have heard the same request from a parent, “Please take out the garbage!”

Deciding what to do with garbage is not a new problem. People have wrestled with the trash problem ever since they abandoned their nomadic ways. The Greek city-state of Athens opened the first municipal dump more than 2,500 years ago.

Garbage By Any Other Name

People who study garbage use the term municipal solid waste (called MSW) to describe our trash.

Municipal solid waste is the food you didn't eat for dinner, old shoes, the empty jar of peanut butter, or the wrapper from your candy bar.

During the Middle Ages, European city dwellers threw their garbage out the door and onto the street. The people of the time didn’t understand that many diseases are caused by filthy environmental conditions.

In the late 1700s, a report in England finally linked disease to unsanitary waste disposal. The age of sanitation began. Cities began collecting waste to get it off the streets and out of public waterways. By the late 1800s, Europeans were even burning their waste and using the energy from it to produce electricity.

The situation was a little different on this side of the Atlantic. To the early colonists, America offered a seemingly endless supply of land and natural resources. So when dumping on city streets became intolerable, they simply took their waste to a dump outside of town, using the spot until it was filled before moving on to another site.

As America’s population grew and people left the farms for life in the city, the amount of waste increased. But the method of getting rid of the waste did not; we continued to dump it. Today, about 55 percent of our garbage is hauled off and buried in sanitary landfills.


Year Event
500 B.C. First city dump opened in Athens, Greece.
1388 English Parliament bans waste disposal in public waterways and ditches.
1400 Garbage piles up so high outside Paris gates that it interferes with the city defenses.
1690 Paper is made from recycled fibers at a mill near Philadelphia.
1842 A report in England links disease to filthy environmental conditions.
1874 In Nottingham, England, the “destructor” burns garbage and produces electricity. Eleven years later, the first American incinerator opens in New York.
1898 The first energy recovery from garbage incineration in the United States started in New York City.
1900's Pigs are use to help get rid of garbage in several cities. One expert said 75 pigs could consume one ton of garbage a day.
1904 First major aluminum recycling plants open in U.S.
1920's Landfilling becomes most popular way to get rid of garbage.
1959 The first guide to sanitary landfilling is published.
1965 Congress passes the first set of solid waste management laws.
1987 A garbage barge circles Long Island with no place to unload its cargo. Americans perceive a new garbage crisis.
1989 The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action, an Environmental Protection Agency report, advocated recycling as a waste management tool.
1997 First "American Recycles Day."


Municipal solid waste (MSW) is garbage that comes from homes, businesses, and schools. Municipal solid waste does not include construction waste, industrial waste, or sewage waste. Municipal solid waste can be classified in two ways:

By Material––what the waste is made of. Waste may be plastic, paper, metal, rubber, food waste, or yard waste. A plastic toy and a plastic yogurt carton would be in the same materials category because they are both made of plastic.

By Product––what the waste was used for originally. The waste may be an old potato chip bag, a worn-out shoe, or a broken toy.  A plastic beverage container and an aluminum beverage container would be in the same product category because they are both used as containers. 


What material do you think makes up most of the municipal solid waste in this country? Paper? Plastic? Metal?

If you said plastic is number one, then you agree with most Americans. But you would be wrong. The correct answer is paper. By weight, paper accounts for 35 percent of the municipal solid waste stream. Plastic account for 11 percent by weight.

Sometimes people who study garbage find it more useful to know what waste was used for, instead of what it was made from. They put waste in five product categories:

Containers/Packaging: This includes cans, jars, bags, bottles, boxes, and wrapping materials. Containers and packaging form the biggest product category.

Nondurable consumer goods: These goods are called nondurable because they are not meant to last a long time. This category includes many paper products such as newspapers, magazines, and paper towels. This category also includes clothing and disposable dinner plates.

Durable consumer goods: The goods in this category are called durable because they are meant to last a long time. This category is made of many bulky and oversized items like washing machines, old furniture, and rubber tires.

Yard wastes: This category is made mostly of grass clippings, but it also includes dead plants and bushes, branches blown down by the wind, and even dirt.

Food wastes: This is what you didn’t eat for dinner, or the mysterious green gunk in the dish A pie chart of percentages on how much waste we produce in the United States, by weight. 
Containers and packaging - 27 percent.
Nondurable goods - 31 percent. 
Food, yard and other wastes - 10 percent.
Durable goods - 32 the bottom of your refrigerator.

A pie chart of percentages on how much waste we produce in the United States, by weight. 
Containers and packaging - 32 percent.
Nondurable goods - 26 percent. 
Food, yard and other wastes - 25 percent.
Durable goods - 17 percent.


Waste Disposal

How can we solve America's waste disposal problem?

There is no single answer. Most experts agree that we should use four steps to manage our waste problem - in this order.

Source Reduction:  reducing the amount of waste we produce in the first place. Example: using less aluminum to make an aluminum can.
black garbage bags

A brown garbage bag with newspapers and eggs

Recycling: Using old products to make new products. Example: Using old newpapers to make egg cartons.


Image of a fire

Waste-to-Energy: Burning trash to produce steam and electricity.



Landfilling: Burying waste when it cannot or should not be burned or recycled.
Image of a landfill design

Until 1990, government reports always tabulated the amount of waste produced in this country by one measure—weight. People use weight to measure MSW because it is the most accurate measurement available. After all, the weight of the waste taken by trucks to landfills is the same as the weight of the waste buried in the landfills.

To figure out how long a landfill will be functional, however, weight doesn’t matter.  It is the volume of the trash that is important, not how much the trash weighs. As one researcher said, “Landfills don’t close because they’re overweight; they close because they have reached their volume capacity.”

As a case in point, look at the amount of container and packaging waste that is produced in the United States. On one hand, studies tell us that the total weight of containers and packaging in the solid waste stream has decreased in recent years. But what about the volume?

If you take a look at the products lining America’s grocery store shelves, you might doubt the studies! Is there really less packaging as the studies suggest? The explanation is simple. Manufacturers are switching to lightweight aluminum and plastic containers, replacing heavier steel and glass containers. There aren’t fewer containers on America’s grocery store shelves, they just weigh less.

Do  these lightweight containers take up less space in a landfill? Not necessarily. Studies show that a plastic ketchup bottle takes up more space in a landfill than a glass ketchup bottle. So a better question may be whether the volume of containers and packaging has decreased in recent years. And the answer to that question is no.

Why would a plastic ketchup bottle take up more space in a landfill than a glass ketchup bottle? Heavy bulldozers crush and compact landfill waste and then bury it under layers of clay and topsoil. Some waste materials can be compressed more than others. Yard and food waste, which contain a lot of water, become very compact in a landfill. The glass ketchup bottle smashes into fine pieces, taking up less space than the plastic bottle, which squashes down but remains whole.


Americans are producing more waste with each passing year. Over the past 30 years, the waste produced in this country has more than doubled, from 88 million tons in 1960 to about 236 million tons in 2003. Some of this increase is linked to U.S. population growth. After all, there are more Americans today than there were in 1960. But that doesn’t account for the whole increase.

Our lifestyle has changed, too. People are buying more convenience items and more disposables, and they choose from a wider variety of products. Today, the average American generates 4.5 pounds of trash every day. That’s 1.8 pounds more trash than the average American produced in 1960.

A pie chart with percentages showing what we do with trash in the United States.

Landfill - 55 percent.

Recycle - 31 percent.

Burn - 14 percent.However, the news isn’t all bad. For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency predicts Americans will stop increasing the amount of trash they throw away each day. For the next few years, the government predicts the average American will continue to generate 4.5 pounds of trash per day. Source reduction, like composting and reduced packaging, will play a major role in this leveling.

Last Revised: September 2006
Source: National Energy Education Development Project, Museum of Solid Waste , 2006


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