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Profiles in garbage

March 1, 2005


Douglas Clement Editor, The Region

This fedgazette focuses on municipal solid waste (MSW). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), MSW includes "everyday items such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances and batteries."

That leaves out significant parts of the total waste stream: construction and demolition debris, agricultural and industrial waste, and hazardous waste. Landfills and some recycling programs include a fair amount of these materials, but experts in the field exclude them from the formal definition of MSW. Nonetheless, they often slip into MSW data.

Unfortunately—and perhaps appropriately—data about garbage are quite a mess. The two most authoritative sources on the subject report very different numbers for total garbage generated in the United States.

The EPA, which estimates its figure indirectly by calculating how much waste people generate given a certain level of economic activity and then extrapolating on the basis of economic and population data, said we generated 229 million tons of MSW in 2001.

Another respected source of waste data, "The State of Garbage" report by BioCycle magazine and Columbia University, goes after the figure more directly: It asks state officials how much waste their residents generate. The most recent report (January 2004) reduces the flaws often found in MSW data by accounting for trash traded among states and by excluding construction and demolition debris and industrial waste. Even trimmed of this fat, their MSW figure for 2002 is far higher than the EPA 2001 total: 369 million tons.

What's in this trash? How much do we generate in the Ninth District? How do we manage it? With a trashcan full of caveats as to data reliability, the graphs below provide an approximate profile.

Douglas Clement
Editor, The Region

Douglas Clement was a managing editor at the Minneapolis Fed, where he wrote about research conducted by economists and other scholars associated with the Minneapolis Fed and interviewed prominent economists.