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The combined recycling and composting rate for municipal solid waste (MSW) in the United States in 2015 remained on par with the rate seen in 2014, according to figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released in July.

The EPA’s “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015 Fact Sheet” assesses trends in material generation, recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling in the U.S. According to the report, only 25.8 percent of the nearly 262 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in the U.S. in 2015 were recovered for recycling. When composting is considered in combination with recycling, the diversion rate increases to 34.7 percent. That figure was 34.6 percent in 2014.

More than 33 million tons (12.8 percent) of the MSW generated in 2015 were combusted for energy recovery, while more than 137 million tons (52.5 percent) of MSW were landfilled, the EPA reports.

At 68.05 million tons, paper and paperboard led in terms of materials generated by weight in 2015. More than 45 million tons of this material, or 66.6 percent, were recycled in 2015, according to EPA figures. While plastics comprised 34.5 million tons of the MSW generated in 2015, only 3.14 million tons were recycled, for a recycling rate of 9.1 percent.


Food waste accounted for 39.78 million tons of the MSW generated in 2015, the EPA reports. Only 2.1 million tons of this material, or 5.3 percent, were composted. The percentage of yard trimmings composted was considerably higher at 61.3 percent. This material accounted for 34.72 million tons of the MSW generated in 2015, 21.29 million tons of which were composted.

“Solid waste generation peaked at 4.74 pounds per person per day in 2000,” the EPA notes in the 2015 report. “However, the rate of 4.48 pounds per person per day in 2015 is slightly higher than the 2014 rate, which was 4.45 pounds per person per day.”

According to the report, the total amount of MSW sent to landfills dropped by 7.6 million tons since 1990, declining from 145.3 million tons to 137.7 million tons in 2015. The net per capita landfilling rate was 2.3 pounds per day in 2015 compared with the 3.2 rate in 1990.

Containers and packaging comprised the largest portion of MSW in 2015 at nearly 78 million tons (29.7 percent), according to the EPA, while nondurable and durable goods comprised more than 50 million tons each (about 20 percent for each).

According to the report, the product category of containers and packaging had the highest recycling rate at approximately 53 percent. The most recycled materials by percentage in the packaging category were paper products, steel and aluminum, according to the report.

Nearly 31 percent of nondurable goods was recycled in 2015, the EPA says, with paper products such as newspapers and mechanical papers being the most recycled items in this category. The recycling rate for durable goods was 19 percent.

“Measuring and understanding the data on MSW generation, recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling is an important foundation for knowing where these valuable resources are going,” the EPA states in the 2015 report. “It is a starting point to figure out trends and ways to more efficiently use these resources and how to keep them in use.”

The EPA says it is by going beyond the three Rs of reduce, reuse and recycle by “employing a systemic approach to reduce material use and associated environmental impacts over the entire life cycle of materials through a process called sustainable materials management (SMM).” SMM considers the entire life cycle of a product from the extraction of natural resources through end-of-life management.

More reports in the EPA’s “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management” series can be found at