News Archive

posted 01/27/04

Contact: Scott Kaufman
212-854-0305 or

National Garbage Survey Highlights Opportunities for Americans to Move From Being Waste-Full to Waste-Wise
On average, each American generated 2,620 pounds (1.31 tons) of waste in 2002, most of which was landfilled

Landfills continue to be the final resting place for most of America's waste, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by the Earth Engineering Center, a unit of the Earth Institute, and BioCycle magazine.

EMMAUS, PA, January 20, 2004 — Landfills continue to be the final resting spot for most of America's waste, according to the results of the national "State of Garbage in America" survey conducted by BioCycle magazine and the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University, a unit of the Earth Institute. Of the 369 million tons of municipal solid waste generated in 2002, 242 million tons (65.6%) were landfilled, 98.7 million tons (26.7%) were recycled or composted and 28.5 million tons (7.7%) were combusted in waste-to-energy (WTE) plants.

"Data in our 2003 report clearly indicate that we are a nation that continues to generate increasing volumes of garbage — most of which are landfilled," said Nora Goldstein, Executive Editor of BioCycle, the waste-to-resource magazine for the recycling and composting industry and champions of the "State of Garbage in America" survey initiated in 1989. "However, the data also shows that more than 50% of Americans have access to recycling services which, right now, appear to be underutilized."

"Based on the amount of waste materials that were sent by residents and commercial businesses for landfilling, recycling, composting and waste-to-energy processing, we were able to calculate state-by-state waste management activity as well as make comparisons of efforts across the country," said Professor Nickolas Themelis, Director of the Earth Engineering Center, who helped manage the study's data collection and analysis.

In addition to state-specific efforts, the study also reported that significant tonnages of solid waste are crossing state borders, a trend that began a number of years ago as thousands of landfills closed across the country and super-sized landfills opened in some states. In all cases, most of the tonnages exported were landfilled in the receiving states.

"The bottom-line message is that we are throwing out significant resources that could be put to better and more productive use through recycling, composting and waste-to-energy efforts," said Goldstein. "This is a waste of resources and a missed opportunity for job creation, environmental restoration and energy production. We can do better."

The State of Garbage in America survey was first conducted in 1989 by BioCycle, Journal of Composting and Organics Recycling. It is the only national survey using data collected directly from state recycling and solid waste departments. For copies of previous State of Garbage surveys, email or search the BioCycle archives (


•  369 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated... 242 million tons disposed in landfills .... 99 million tons recycled ..... 28 million tons combusted for energy recovery

•  U.S. Recycling Rate in 2002: 26.7 percent

•  Americans produce 1.31 tons/year/person of garbage (national average)

•  1,767 landfills in the United States, a drop from almost 8,000 reported in BioCycle's 1989 State of Garbage In America report

• Western states have highest recycling rate — 38%

• Rocky Mountain region has lowest recycling rate — 9% and throws away 90% of all MSW generated

BioCycle, based in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, has been reporting on recycling and composting since 1960. The monthly magazine is renowned for its coverage of initiatives that advance the conversion of waste materials into marketable products.

The Earth Engineering Center is the engineering unit of Columbia University's Earth Institute, headed by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the renowned economist and environmentalist. Other units of the Institute are   the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Center for Environmental Conservation (CERC) — a partnership with the Museum of Natural History and the New York Botanical Garden — and the International Research Center for Climate Prediction. The Earth Engineering Center brings together engineers, economists and political scientists to develop solutions to major environmental problems.

To view State of Garbage In America, published in BioCycle, January 2004, click here.

For more information, please contact:
Nickolas J. Themelis
Director, Earth Engineering Center, Columbia University
(212)854-2138;F(212) 854-5213; e-mail:
EEC web page:
Ann Miller, BioCycle, phone 610-967-4135, ext. 22

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.