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Solid Waste

Issue Summary
Organizations/Non-Government Programs
Databases and Tools

Issue SummarySolid Waste

Many communities in America are faced with a solid waste disposal problem. In 2007, we generated 254 million tons of municipal solid waste, an increase of 24% since 1990. During this same time period, per capita waste generation has increased only 3%, so much of the total increase is due to a larger population. In fact, the per capita rate of waste disposed of (as opposed to generated) has actually decreased since 1990 by 23% due to improved waste recovery efforts.

The two primary types of disposal practices are landfilling and municipal waste combustion, or incineration.

Landfill Operation. Local governments often own and operate a solid waste landfill for final disposal of the majority of solid waste generated within the local government's jurisdiction. Solid waste landfills provide an engineered facility for the long term containment of solid waste and include the following activities:

  • Receiving and depositing solid waste into the landfill
  • Controlling disease vector populations,
  • Managing/monitoring landfill gas production, leachate, and storm water, and
  • Recordkeeping.

Most landfills include a large disposal area that contains numerous smaller cells. Solid waste is deposited in these cells daily, compacted using specially designed bulldozers, and then generally covered with either a thin layer of soil or some alternative cover. The local governments controls the flow of solid waste into the facility to exclude materials such as hazardous waste or other materials that should be managed elsewhere or could be recycled to make the landfill safer and preserve capacity. Once a cell is full it is covered with a final cover designed to limit infiltration and vector populations, and provide a base for cover vegetation.

The number of landfills in the U.S. has decreased sharply since 1990, going from 6,326 to 1,754 landfills. Many of the older landfills closed because they could not meet federal environmental standards that were promulgated in the early 1990s.  The size of the average landfill, however, has increased. Overall current landfill capacity is stable, although many communities may face shortages.

Municipal solid waste landfills are regulated under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act passed by Congress in 1976. In 1991, the U.S. EPA published a supplemental set of Municipal Solid Waste Landfill Regulations (MSWLR) which now serves as the basis for state regulatory and permitting requirements. Because today's landfills need to operate with unquestioned safety and efficiency, it often can take five or more years from the time a site is selected until design, permit application, and public hearings are completed and the facility is built.

In developing the RCRA Subtitle D MSWLF standards, EPA gave a great deal of consideration to the impacts on local governments. Wherever possible, EPA made the regulations flexible in order to provide small communities with relief from some of the more costly technical requirements.

Local governments must monitor groundwater in close proximity to the landfill and employ a system of pipes that collect methane gas generated as a byproduct of decomposition. Methane gas has been identified as a significant greenhouse gas. Facilities that generate sufficient quantities of methane can recover the landfill gas for use as a source of energy. Stormwater runoff associated with landfills may also be regulated under the CWA stormwater provisions.

Landfill operations are subject to the minimum criteria for municipal solid waste landfills found at 40 CFR Part 258. These minimum criteria address location restrictions, operating criteria, design criteria, groundwater monitoring and corrective action requirements, closure and post-closure care requirements, and financial assurance criteria. Where a municipal solid waste landfill subject to this rule does not meet these requirements, it is considered an open dump, which is prohibited under §4005 of RCRA.

A local government could be subject to state permit provisions if their state has developed its own solid waste permit program under delegated authority from EPA. Under the Clean Air Act, landfills are subject to a National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) that requires landfill operators, among other requirements to continuously monitor control devices to ensure compliance with the operating conditions for landfill gas control systems and prepare and implement a plan to control toxic air emissions. In addition, landfills may be regulated under prevention of significant deterioration (PSD) and non-attainment area (NAA) provisions.

Municipal Waste Combustion. An alternative method of managing solid waste is through combustion. Solid waste combustion involves the incineration of all or a portion of the solid wastestream in specially designed solid waste combustion facilities and the disposal of the residual ash in landfills.

When choosing to employ municipal combustion, local governments can retrofit existing facilities, build new facilities, or enter into regional partnerships. If they are building new facilities, they must site, design (incorporating elaborate air pollution controls), permit, and construct the combustion facility. Once a combustion facility is in place, the local government must ensure its proper operation, provide a relatively constant flow of waste as a feedstream, and manage and dispose of the residual ash. Most new incinerators have the capacity to recover and reuse the energy released during combustion (the "waste-to-energy" process).

Municipal waste combustion is regulated primarily under the Clean Air Act regulations (40 CFR Part 60), which establishes guidelines and standards of performance for municipal waste combustors, as well as standards of performance for incinerators.

The disposal of residual ash from the combustion of municipal waste, including fly ash and bottom ash, is regulated under RCRA and state laws. Generally, these two types of ash are combined and then disposed in either a municipal landfill or a special ash landfill. Under RCRA, each facility must determine whether the combined ash constitutes a hazardous waste and if so, the ash must be managed as a hazardous waste. Where the ash is not a hazardous waste, it can be managed under state law, which may allow disposal in a solid waste landfill or provide for disposal in an ash monofill (or impose other special requirements).


The Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Fact Sheet. Includes various resources for source reduction, recycling (including composting), and disposal.

EPA Infographic for Municipal Solid Waste.


State Resource Locator. Provides links to state solid waste agencies.

Organizations/Non-Government Programs

US Composting Council is a national, non-profit trade and professional organization promoting the recycling of organic materials through composting.

Solid Waste Association of North America. SWANA's mission is "to advance the practice of environmentally and economically sound management of municipal solid waste." SWANA serves over 8,100 members and thousands more industry professionals with technical conferences, certifications, publications and a large offering of technical training courses.

National Waste & Recycling Association. NSWMA is a trade association representing for-profit companies in North America that provide solid, hazardous and medical waste collection, recycling and disposal services, and companies that provide professional and consulting services to the waste services industry.

Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials (ASTSWMO). An organization supporting the environmental agencies of the States and trust territories. ASTSWMO focuses on the needs of State hazardous waste programs; non-hazardous municipal solid waste and industrial waste programs; sustainability, recycling, waste minimization, and reduction programs; Superfund and State cleanup programs; waste management and cleanup activities at federal facilities; and underground storage tank and leaking underground storage tank programs.


Municipal Solid Waste in the United States (2012).This report released every two years is a key component of EPA's Sustainable Materials Management Program (SMM). SMM is an effort to protect the environment and conserve resources for future generations through a systems approach that seeks to reduce materials use and their associated environmental impacts over their entire life cycles, starting with extraction of natural resources and product design and ending with decisions on recycling or final disposal. This report contains data on:
  1. MSW generation, recovery, and disposal from 1960 to 2011;
  2. Per capita generation and discard rates;
  3. Source reduction (waste prevention);
  4. Materials and products that are in the waste stream;
  5. Aggregate data on the infrastructure for MSW management, including estimates of the number of curbside recycling programs, composting programs, and landfills in the US; and
  6. Trends in MSW management from 1960 to 2011, including source reduction, recycling and composting, and disposal via combustion and landfilling.

EPA Municipal Solid Waste Publications. Includes free publications available directly on-line and via on-line ordering.

Waste and Recycling for Dummies. Comprehensive overview of the waste and recycling industry, compiling insights from subject matter experts on topics including recycling, landfilling, composting, waste-to-energy conversion, and the impacts of waste management on human health and the environment. Note: users must submit their email address to receive access.

Databases and Tools

Comprehesive Procurement Guidelines (CPG): Guidelines to help businesses purchase recycled materials, including recommendations for recycled-content levels for CPG items.

Tools for Local Government Recycling Programs: Provides tools and information for local governments and community leaders seeking to create or maintain a residential recycling program.

Product Stewardship: This website highlights the latest developments in product stewardship and provides numerous links to other sources of information.