Every year, EPA produces a report on municipal solid waste generation, recycling, and disposal.

In 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, Americans recycled and composted 87 million of the 251 million tons of trash they generated for a national recycling rate of 34.5% compared to 34.7% in 2011. Waste recovery rates also dipped slightly, to 260,000 tons.

You'd think this would be bad news. Not necessarily, says the National Waste & Recycling Association.

“Part of the dip in recycling can be attributed to our evolving waste stream,” says President Sharon Kneiss. “We’re generating less printed material—newspapers, office paper or magazines—as we shift to a digital world. Meanwhile, packaging recycling has continued to climb—more than half of all packaging is now recycled—and this packaging is getting lighter and greener as manufacturers seek to minimize their environmental footprint.”

EPA's figures show some interesting developments:

  • Population growth is still outpacing waste generation, and waste generation also continues to grow slower than the economy. Total national waste generation increased by 500,000 tons, or 0.19%.
  • Waste disposal rose very slightly and recovery (including recycling and composting) dropped very slightly. Land disposal peaked in 1990, and waste-to-energy generation peaked in 2000.
  • Packaging continues to be the largest component of trash (30%), followed by food waste and yard trimmings (28%), nondurables (20.5%), durables (20%), and miscellaneous inorganic wastes (1.5%).
  • Packaging recycling has steadily increased, from 38% in 2000 to 51.5% in 2012. Printed paper recycling rose more dramatically, from 42% in 2000 to 71% in 2012.

“The public can  increase the recycling rate by getting the right materials in the bin in the first place," Kneiss says. "It begins with the bin.”