Approved by the Energy, Environment, and Water Policy Committee on February 17, 2022
Approved by the Public Policy and Practice Committee on May 18, 2022
Adopted by the Board of Direction on July 22, 2022
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE):
- Supports federal and state legislation that would promote, enhance, or facilitate development of resource recovery facilities, including those for recycling, composting, reuse, and energy recovery, as well as technologies for reduction of waste generation.
- Supports development of cost-effective recycling and sustainable waste handling options for municipalities, specifically in communities where scale and/or the use of older outdated systems is an impediment.
- Opposes federal legislation that would ban the interstate movement of municipal solid waste (MSW) to regional solid waste facilities designed in accordance with state and federal regulations, recognizing that such transport may be appropriate and beneficial in regional solid waste planning efforts.
- Encourages source reduction through the redesign of manufacturer’s packaging of goods.
The United States (U.S) has been increasing production of MSW annually, but the land available for disposal has remained stable. Some statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding MSW include:
- In 2018, the U.S. produced 292.4 million tons of MSW, an increase from the 2010 amount of 251.1 million tons.
- Recycling and composting diverted 94 million tons (approximately 32.1 percent) from being disposed of in 2018, which is a small increase from 2010 and much greater than the 15 million tons recycled in 1980.
- An additional 17.7 million tons of food waste were managed by other methods. This recycling and composting also avoided the release of approximately 193 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air in 2018, equal to removing 42 million cars from the roadway system for one year.
Many issues remain, for instance, the per capita waste generation rate remains much higher in the U.S. compared to many other countries. Additionally, contaminated recycling streams and lack of markets for recycled goods often result in these materials ending up in a landfill regardless of active recycling programs. Due to increased international standards, there has been a reduction in the acceptance of the recyclable materials in countries outside the U.S. This adds another burden to landfill capacities, which are already dropping at a concerning rate, especially in the northeast and southeast regions of the country. It is estimated that the country has 10 to 20 years of capacity remaining, with certain regions such as the Northeast and Midwest with the lowest capacities. Finally, incineration of municipal solid waste reduces volume of waste by 75%; however, this process also produces air pollution and toxic ash material that must be managed appropriately.
Advances in technology for recovering energy from waste through anaerobic digestion, gasification and more efficient combustion hold promise as alternatives to land disposal and current combustion practices. Recovery of methane from decaying waste in more than 550 MSW landfills also provides a fuel for electricity generation while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In summary, recycling and maximizing the conversion to energy of the balance of MSW generated have many environmental benefits, including reduction of GHG emissions and avoidance of needed collection and transportation systems.
Recognizing the value and limitations of natural resources and landfill capacity, source reduction is critical. Innovative programs are needed to change the way Americans think about solid waste to reduce generation and increase recycling. Programs such as Pay-As-You-Throw have been successful in reducing the total solid waste generation in a number of communities across the U.S. by creating a direct economic incentive to recycle more.Organic resources such as yard trimmings and food waste can be diverted away from landfill disposal for conversion to organic soil amendment products such as compost and mulch. Alternatively, organic resources and their energy content (e.g., biofuels) can be converted to renewable energy production. In addition, as recycling increases, landfill mining to recover previously landfilled material can be implemented. Together with continued efforts to reduce MSW generation, opportunities to recover and utilize valuable resources present in the MSW stream can be developed as a means of reducing dependency on landfill disposal.
ASCE Policy Statement 516
First Approved in 2006