The International Information Center for Geotechnical Engineers

Biodegradation in Municipal Solid Waste landfills


Solid Waste Composition and Management

 Municipal solid waste (MSW) is defined to include wastes from residential, commercial, and institutional (e.g., schools, government offices) sources. This definition excludes many materials that are frequently disposed with MSW in landfills including combustion ash, water and wastewater treatment residuals, construction and demolition (C&D waste), and nonhazardous industrial process wastes (U.S. EPA 2007).

The composition of municipal solid waste varies greatly from municipality to municipality (country to country) and changes significantly with time. Information on waste composition is needed to estimate the amount of biodegradable organic carbon and to estimate the amount of recyclable material. In 2013, the EPA estimated MSW generation of 254 million tons in the United States. The composition of MSW is shown in Figure 2. The manner in which this waste is managed is illustrated in Figure 3.


Fig. 2 Total MSW generation (by material) (U.S. EPA, 2013)

More than 50% of the landfilled waste consists of paper, food and yard waste, which are biodegradable under anaerobic conditions (Barlaz et al., 2010).


Fig. 3 Management of MSW (U.S. EPA, 2013)

53 % of the waste is discarded and disposed in landfills, which makes landfilling as the primary method of disposing waste in the United States. 


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