Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Trash
Name: Durwood
Status: Other
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: N/A 

What is the most recent data on the average number of pounds of trash that people in Illinois produce? What is the composition of this rubbish? What is the truth about which products can and cannot be recycled? What number do they have to have in the recycling logo to be recycled?

I actually had all this information you are interested in a "newsletter" from, I believe, November, 1992. Unfortunately I recycled it. I did ask for a reprint and hope to be able to address all 4 of your questions within the next few days. With regard to the numbers required to undergo recycling, I assume you refer to plastic. As far as what number does an item need to be recycled, the answer is that there is not really a requirement. I will attempt to describe a few of the reasons for recycling only certain plastics in certain communities. The real reason that only certain plastics are recycled in certain communities is not only the type of plastic, but also economics. Recyclers need to make money or they cannot survive. To make money they have to have a large enough source of recyclable material to justify the cost of the recycling equipment, collection, etc. Recycling certain items just is not cost effective so no one bothers. With regard to plastic, the largest source of recyclable material is food product packaging, typically recycle codes 2 and 4. Even recycling companies that accept codes 2 and 4 usually only accept certain plastics based on what was in the container. A recycling company will not usually recycle a number 2 bleach bottle into a milk jug because either the bleach in the jug will have to be rinsed out or, more likely, some of the bleach will be present in the final recycled product and it will be worthless. Your first question on the average number of pounds of trash produced by Illinois residents has a rather shocking answer. My sources say that we produce about five pounds of trash per person per day. While this may not seem too extreme, consider that the people of India produce only 1/2 pound of trash per person per day, 10 times less. To put trash production in perspective from a volume standpoint, every 10,000 people generate enough waste in a year to fill an acre ten feet deep. Assuming the population of Chicago is 3 million people, that means that approximately 300 acres of land are buried 10 feet deep each year (this from the city alone). Though I will continue to pursue the answers to the rest of your questions, I would like to refer you to another source of valuable information. Video programs are available from the U of I Film/Video Center based in Champaign-Urbana. There are many titles available and each item can be borrowed for a week at no cost (except return postage). This service is mainly intended for schools, government agencies, and citizen groups, but other organizations may ask to borrow films (I would not suggest that you try to borrow a film without going through your school). Call the film Video Center at 1-800-367-3456 and ask for a catalog. The film titled "The Garbage Explosion" (SW 58388) looks like it would be of interest to you. Since you appear to be interested in recycling I feel it is only fair that I give you my personal point of view on the subject. Recycling is far from the best way to reduce the amount of waste put into landfills. From a waste minimization standpoint, recycling should be considered as a last resort. That is not to say it is without merit.

Recycling is very important because there are a lot of cases where it is the only waste minimization (WMin) option. However, from a global viewpoint recycling is not a method of pollution prevention, it is merely another means of waste management. Pollution prevention should really begin at the source. Recycling does not address source reduction. There is somewhat of a fine line (or more likely a difference of interpretation) between what constitutes prevention from "end-of-pipe" pollution control and waste management, including recycling. The Federal Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 provides a definition of what true prevention is. Recycling is not prevention, it is waste management. Recycling of materials requires the expenditure of energy and resources. These resources and energy can be saved if products are manufactured in such a way that they do not have to be recycled. To sum it up, there are really three means of pollution prevention: Source reduction (addressing the means of industrial production); Toxic substance use reduction (materials used); and "green" products. I have prepared a short summary of the benefits of all three which I hope you will find useful. Before I get to pollution prevention, let me finally answer your original question. I do not really have any Illinois trash data. I have been told that the Illinois EPA does not track this information (though the Illinois Dept. of Energy and Natural Resources might). Anyway, in July, 1992 the USEPA released a report on Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste. The report covered calendar year 1990 and is the most recently published data (from the USEPA). Their report puts the amount of trash produced per person per day at about 4.5 pounds. I broke the composition of the trash from the report into percentages and came up with the following: Paper, 35.5; Yard waste, 17.8; Metal, 8.9 Plastic, 8.9; Glass, 6.7; Wood, 6.7; Food, 6.7; Rubber and Leather, 2.2i Textiles, 2.2; and Other, 4.4. Though these percentages are derived from national rather than Illinois data, they are probably pretty close to the numbers you would find for Illinois. The report title is "Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1992 Update." You can get a free copy of the report's executive summary by calling the RCRA Hotline at (800) 424-9346, or TDD (800) 553-7672, for the hearing impaired. The entire report is rather long and available for a charge through the National Technical Information Service. Their number is (703) 486-3323.

Eric Dallman

Click here to return to the Environmental Science

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory