Waste Reduction FAQs

Q: What is in our waste stream?

A: The Garbage Project, a Department of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona, gives an estimated breakdown of the materials disposed of in landfills by volume in the first pie chart. In the second and third charts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives the breakdown of materials and products generated in municipal solid waste (MSW) by weight.

Q: How do plastics contribute to waste reduction?

A: Plastics are strong yet lightweight, meaning it often requires less plastic to make a certain package compared to other possible materials:

  • The plastic film wrappers now used for large diaper packs create 50 percent less waste by volume than previous packages.
  • Over 4 million students a day in the U.S. drink their milk or juice in flexible drink pouches. Compared to traditional cartons, the source-reduced pouch reduces weight by 80 percent and volume of waste by 70 percent, which reduces storage and trash disposal costs for schools.1
  • Plastic grocery bags are lighter and create up to 80 percent less waste by volume than paper sacks.

Normal economic market forces cause manufacturers to continually look for ways to reduce the cost of their packages by minimizing the amount of material used:

  • An average polystyrene foam plate today requires 25 percent less polystyrene to produce than it did in 1974.2
  • Plastic grocery sacks were 2.3 mils (thousands of an inch) thick in 1976 and were down to 1.75 mils by 1984. In 1989, new technology gave us the same strength and durability in a bag only 0.7 mil thick.

Along with weight and size reductions, plastics can contribute to waste reduction in other ways:

  • Plastics have an increased life span. Their physical properties allow them to be used in multiple applications, while their durability and flexibility allow them to be used again and again. For example, some laundry products are being packaged in reusable plastic bottles. Small packages of concentrated product are used to refill the original bottles, helping to reduce total packaging waste.
  • Plastics are lighter than many alternative materials. They have consistently reduced the weight of truck payloads and allowed companies to ship more product in fewer trucks. More than 2.8 million plastic grocery bags can be delivered in one truck. The same truck can hold only 500,000 paper grocery bags.3
  • Plastics generally exhibit superior resistance to breakage and denting. This results in fewer container breaches and less product loss on the packaging line, and safer handling in the the home.4

Manufacturers of durable goods choose plastics for many reasons:

  • Plastics allow highly efficient manufacturing processes (up to 99 percent efficiency) that increase productivity by 20 to 30 percent and reduce capital expenditures by as much as 50 percent.5
  • Without plastics' resistance to corrosion, the product life of some major appliances would be reduced by nearly 40 percent. By helping them last longer, plastics keep appliances and other durable goods out of the waste stream.5

Q: Are Americans really reducing waste?

A: Yes. According to the EPA, the amount of waste Americans generate (prior to recycling and combustion efforts) has been steadily decreasing. In fact, plastic packaging -- which has undergone substantial source reduction efforts -- accounted for 3.9 percent of all waste generated in 1996, versus 5.5 percent in 1995. These numbers suggest that source reduction is succeeding. Because Americans are generating less waste, the amount going into landfills is decreasing -- 11 6 million tons in 1996 compared to 140 million tons in 1990.6

Q: Can some plastics be used more than once before disposal?

A: Yes. One of plastic's most unique properties is its durability. This durability makes it one of the materials of choice for commonly reused items such as food storage containers and refillable sports bottles. Reuse of plastics also helps offset trash disposal costs and reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills. For example:

  • More than 200 schools in seven states and Ontario, Canada, use refillable plastic milk bottles that can be washed, refilled and reused over 100 times before being recycled.7
  • As much as 40 percent of selected plastic parts from damaged or discarded cars are repaired and reused, reducing the amount of automotive components sent to l andfills.8
  • More More than 1,400 quality products made with or packaged in post-consumer recycled plastics are now commercially available, including single-use cameras, park benches, sweaters, jeans, videocassettes, detergent bottles and children's toys.

1.Correspondence from G.E. Plastics, manufacturer of LEXAN® reusable milk bottles, 1993.
2."Repair and Reuse of Automotive Plastic Parts," Roy F. Weston, 1993.
3."1994 National Post-Consumer Plastics Collection Survey," R.W. Beck & Associates, March 1995.
4."Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Foam Polystyrene and Bleached Paperboard Containers," Franklin Associates, Ltd., 1990.
5."Plastics: Key Materials for Innovation and Productivity in Major Appliances," Ralph S. Hagan, February 1994.
6."The Archaeology of Contemporary Landfills," W.L. Rathje, W.W. Hughes, D.C. Wilson, M.K. Tani, G.H. Archer, R.G. Hunt and T.W. Jones, The Garbage Project, American Antiquity, 1992.
7."1995 Semi-Annual Post-Consumer Plastics Handlers and Reclaimers Survey," R.W. Beck & Associates, September 1995.
8."Questions and Answers About Conrad Industries and Advanced Plastics Recycling," American Plastics Council, 1993.