Every year when the EPA releases its annual report on municipal solid waste, we dutifully report the numbers.
Problem is, the numbers are almost certainly wrong, significantly so.
This isn't much of a secret. A biennial report by BioCycle magazine and Columbia University, which uses actual disposal data, shows that Americans are likely generating hundreds of millions of tons more garbage than the EPA lets on. (The EPA uses equipment manufacturing data to estimate MSW.)
For 2008 (the last year we have comparable data between the EPA and BioCycle/Columbia), the EPA reported 250 million tons of MSW generated. BioCycle/Columbia reported 389 million.
(That's the same kind of accounting disparity my wife sees when she asks how many beers I've had -- "Beers?! Only two, baby. I promish.")
We just finished compiling our annual "largest landfills" list and gathered 2011 tonnage data on roughly 800 landfills. (There are about 1,900 active landfills in the U.S.)
At just these 800 sites, 200.5 million tons of MSW was landfilled in 2011. This was the actual waste on the scales.
According to last year's EPA report, 54.2% of MSW was landfilled, 11.7% gwent to waste-to-energy facilities and 34.1% was recycled/recovered. (These percentages have also been refuted by BioCycle/Columbia.)
So what's the estimated total trash generated if we just use the data from the 800 landfills?
About 370 million tons.
Even if we use BioCycle/Columbia's percentages (69.3% of MSW landfilled, 6.7% to WTE, 24.1% recycled) we still get 289.3 million tons of MSW generated -- in areas served by just 800 landfills. That's about 40 million tons more than the EPA said the entire nation generated in 2010.
These numbers are all "back of the envelope" stuff, because I know that while we tried hard to get only MSW numbers from states and landfills, there is likely C&D debris – and other wastes -- mixed in there somewhere.
But the point is pretty clear: The annual EPA report, which some people call the "trash bible," may need to be filed on the fiction shelf.