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Policy Statement 516 - Municipal Solid Waste Management

 
Approved by the Energy, Environment, and Water Policy Committee on January 22, 2019
Approved by the Public Policy Committee on April 28, 2019
Adopted by the Board of Direction on July 13, 2019

Policy

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sustainable waste handling options for municipalities, specifically in communities where scale and/or the use of older outdated systems is an impediment; and
  • 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. 

Issue

In 2015, the United States produced 262.4 million tons of MSW, an increase from the 2010 amount of 251.1 million tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Recycling and composting diverted 91.2 million tons (approximately 34.7 percent) from being disposed of in 2015, which is a small increase from 2010 and much greater than the 15 million tons recycled in 1980. This recycling and composting also avoided the release of approximately 262 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air in 2015, roughly equal to removing 56 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 United States compared to many other countries. The 2015 per capita MSW generation rate for the United States was 4.48 lbs/person/day compared to 3.7 lbs/person/day in Germany and 2.9 lbs/person/day in the United Kingdom. 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. 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 will have 10 to 15 years of capacity remaining by 2021, with certain regions such as the northeast and southeast 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.

Rationale

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 United States 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.  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


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