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Municipal solid waste

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) (that is, trash) can be a source of energy by either burning the MSW in waste-to-energy plants or by capturing biogas. Over half of MSW is biogenic, or made from renewable materials.

  • Energy recovery from garbage incineration started in New York City.
  • First-generation research was followed by construction of refuse-derived fuel systems and pyrolysis units in the late 1970s.
  • The U.S. Navy, Wheelabrator, and Ogden acquired the European mass burn technologies that would dominate the U.S. industry by the late 1980s.
  • The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976 empowered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate residues from solid waste incinerators. Unclear wording made application of the law to MSW power plants uncertain, and the issue was taken to court.
  • The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) of 1978 mandated the purchase of electricity from qualifying facilities at a utility's avoided cost of energy and capacity. This legislation was used to require utilities to pay a higher price for power from MSW power plants than the plants had traditionally received.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court defined waste to be an article of interstate commerce that cannot be discriminated against unless there is some reason, apart from its origin, to treat it differently, or unless Congress specifies otherwise for particular articles of commerce.
  • The Tax Reform Act of 1986 eliminated the tax-free status of MSW power plants financed with industrial development bonds, reduced accelerated depreciation, and eliminated the 10-percent tax credit. The Act also reduced State caps on private tax-exempt bonds in 1988, further reducing funding sources and increasing the cost of capital.
  • Landfill tipping fees doubled, and doubled again every two years owing to rising landfill costs resulting from the RCRA. Siting issues became increasingly difficult.
  • An EPA report on recycling, The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action, advocated recycling as a waste management tool.
  • The EPA recognized MSW power as a renewable fuel that would qualify for up to 30,000 sulfur dioxide emission allowances from a special pool of 300,000 designed to promote conservation and renewable energy. The EPA also required MSW power plants that could process over 250 tons per day to use the best available control technology (BACT).
  • Under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the EPA announced that small, unlined landfills would be required to close by December 31, 1993. Most landfills requested and received extensions. This action spurred the infant recycling industry and increased tipping fees around the country.
  • An EPA memorandum excluded ash from regulation as a hazardous waste, under Subtitle C of the RCRA, as long as it was not characterized as toxic.
  • Recycling legislation was adopted by15 States.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that State-imposed waste import restrictions were illegal. "Economic protectionist" measures that violated the Commerce Clause and were, therefore, unconstitutional.
  • President Bush issued Executive Order 12780; it stimulated waste reduction, recycling, and the buying of recycled goods in all Federal agencies.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the exemption of MSW (from a hazardous waste definition) under the RCRA did not extend to ash. MSW ash must be tested and disposed of in hazardous waste landfills if found to exceed EPA regulations on hazardous wastes under RCRA.
  • The term flow control is defined as: The official authority of waste managers to direct waste generated in a city or area to a designated landfill, recycling, or waste-to-energy facility (e.g., in another State).
  • The U.S. Supreme Court upheld challenges to flow control. As a result, existing flow control contracts could be rendered invalid under specific situations (on a case-by-case basis). Several plants have shut down as a result. The California Supreme Court also ruled against flow control.
  • The EPA strengthened air emission standards for MSW combustion plants by requiring maximum achievable control technologies (MACT). It also included plants as small as 40 tons per day under regulations.
  • President Clinton issued Executive Order 12873; it required Federal agencies to establish waste prevention and recycling programs and to buy and use recycled and environmentally preferable products and services. Clinton created the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive to enforce the order.
  • The Senate passed a flow control bill that grandfathered in existing flow control contracts to prevent the major risk of MSW bond default in 14 States.
  • A total of 208 million tons of MSW was generated in 1995. This reflected a decrease of more than 1 million tons from 1994, when MSW generation was over 209 million tons.
  • About 7,000 curbside recycling programs and nearly 9,000 drop-off centers for recyclables operated in the United States.
  • The United States had 112 waste-to-energy combustion facilities.
  • With a 25% recycling rate achieved in the United States, the EPA set a recycling goal of 35%.
  • The Olympic Games in Atlanta introduced a system for voluntary recycling and composting.
  • The EPA established a link between global climate change and solid waste management, noting that waste reduction and recycling can help reduce green house gas emissions.
  • EPA policy required its offices to use paper with 100%-recycled content and 50%-postconsumer content.
  • Recycling and composting diverted more than 72 million tons from disposal in landfills.
  • The EPA reported the amount of toxics released decreased 45% from 1998 to 2004, from 6.7 billion to 3.7 billion pounds.
  • A total of 245.7 million tons of municipal solid waste was generated in the United States.
  • 32% of the MSW was recycled or composted.
  • Biogenic MSW provided the most energy-from-waste energy at 42%.
  • The second largest share, 37%, came from landfill gas.
  • The EIA decided to split MSW into biogenic and nonbiogenic components for future data releases.

Last revised: June 2008
Sources: Energy Information Administration, Renewable Energy Trends in Consumption and Electricity, 2006 (, July 2008
Energy Information Administration, Renewable Energy Annual 1995 ( ), December 2005
Energy Information Administration, Renewable Energy Sources: A Consumer’s Guide (, December 2005
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste Publications ( ), June 2008
U.S. Census Bureau, Geography and Environment Tables (, June 2008