An Intro to Solid Waste Characterization Data

Below you will find links to the sources, and an introduction to the data that Keep Sidney Beautiful relies on when it comes to supporting and planning for our recycling system. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been collecting data on material generation and disposal for over 35 years, and has records of waste management dating as far back as the 60s. This comprehensive ongoing study has measured the success of programs nationwide, and aims to help states, local governments, and local programs by directing them towards the resources they need for success. The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) formerly the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) oversees all waste management in the state, from landfills, to private waste management business, and the Keep Nebraska Beautiful Affiliates. The NDEE not only studies and reports on the waste management system, but works to create viable solutions for rural districts with limited options, and new systems to benefit municipalities statewide.
The information below is a great first look into what exactly is going into our landfills, and why Keep Sidney Beautiful has been focused on our corrugated cardboard and mixed paper recycling. Some of the reports linked are quite extensive (2,000 pages!!!!), so don’t feel like you have to jump all the way in. Keep Sidney Beautiful will be discussing more specific topics from these reports throughout the year. Follow this blog or subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date.


This chart, from the EPA, shows the distribution of municipal solid wastes (MSW) generated in the United States in 2018. Even though paper materials and cardboard have the highest rate of recycling, that material is still accounting for a large portion of landfilled solid waste. Other organic materials combined (food waste, wood, and yard trimmings) make up over 33% of landfill waste nationwide and other recyclable materials (glass, metals, and plastics) combined total around 25%.

Approximately 46 million tons of paper and paperboard were recycled in 2018 for a recycling rate of 68.2 percent, which was the highest compared to other materials in MSW.

EPA Paper and Paperboard: Material Specific Data

For comparison, this chart was from a comprehensive NDEE study in 2009, showing the municipal solid waste collected in Sidney over a year long period. (According to the study, 38 samples were studied over 4 different periods in a year). Even though this data is a little bit dated, Sidney’s waste falls in line with the national average, with our plastics and paper coming in a little bit higher. A large component of recycling is to slow down the rate at which our landfill is being filled. Paper products have a recycling rate of 68%, and corrugated cardboard at nearly 98%, yet is still the largest material landfilled by both weight and volume. Food waste is also an issue.

This situation indicates how the waste stream is affected by the unique characteristics of a community. For example, Sidney is located along Interstate 80 which may explain the higher percentages found in the glass component, metals component, and food category; there are more restaurants and auto and truck repair shops along the interstate.

NDEE State of Nebraska Waste Characterization Study

For comparison, this is the statewide results from the same NDEE study.
Other interesting finds include:
• The yard waste ban appears to be very successful in reducing the amount of yard waste disposed in Nebraska’s solid waste facilities.
• More than 50% of the paper fibers component of Nebraska’s municipal waste stream is easily recyclable.
• The plastics component comprises 19.13% of Nebraska’s municipal waste stream and approximately 27% of the component is easily recyclable.

The NDEE Solid Waste Management Programs Study follows up the Waste Characterization Study, and addresses the needs and successes of waste management programs across the state. This study heavily emphasizes the rural districts limited resources when it comes to solid and effective recycling programs. In the Review of Existing State Program, the lack of outlets for waste tires is almost immediately mentioned, and further in the study, the lack of infrastructure is discussed.

We can’t ignore the amount of food waste that ends up in landfills either. Composting is an effective way to handle this issue, but large scale composting does present it’s own problems and requires regular maintenance to be successful. Backyard composting is a strong way to combat residential food waste, but is not an option for businesses. One viable solution for Sidney would be integrating composting into the already existing yard waste program. Roadblocks regarding this, is that yard waste and food waste have to be transported separately, so curbside pickup is unlikely. Since absorbent materials are required for handling the moisture content of compost, chipped/shredded yard waste could address that.

Below is a comparison between residential and commercial solid waste collected in Sidney. The commercial waste sample totaled 3683.05lbs, and the residential sample was 3583.21lbs. A couple obvious observations are that businesses are less likely to use our current recycling system; most food waste comes from households; when compared to the Mixed Waste Data chart above, residential and commercial waste are each accounting for roughly 50% of landfill usage. That is, neither the residents, nor business community are putting more strain than the other on our system. It should be noted that Construction & Demolition (C&D) are excluded from all the reports links in this post.

The total generation of MSW in 2018 was 292.4 million tons, which was approximately 23.7 million tons more than the amount generated in 2017.  This is an increase from the 268.7 million tons generated in 2017 and the 208.3 million tons in 1990.

EPA National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Waste, and Recycling