Municipal Solid Waste

MSW—more commonly known as trash or garbage—consists of everyday items such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint, and batteries. To learn more about MSW, view our interactive presentation about Milestones in Garbage: 1990–Present.

In 2006, US residents, businesses, and institutions produced more than 251 million tons of MSW, which is approximately 4.6 pounds of waste per person per day.

Several MSW management practices, such as source reduction, recycling, and composting, prevent or divert materials from the wastestream. Source reduction involves altering the design, manufacture, or use of products and materials to reduce the amount and toxicity of what gets thrown away. Recycling diverts items, such as paper, glass, plastic, and metals, from the wastestream. These materials are sorted, collected, and processed and then manufactured, sold, and bought as new products. Composting decomposes organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, with microorganisms (mainly bacteria and fungi), producing a humus-like substance.

Trends in MSW Generation - Click on Chart to View Information in Text Format

Other practices address those materials that require disposal. Landfills are engineered areas where waste is placed into the land. Landfills usually have liner systems and other safeguards to prevent groundwater contamination. Combustion is another MSW practice that has helped reduce the amount of landfill space needed. Combustion facilities burn MSW at a high temperature, reducing waste volume and generating electricity.