California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

Solid Waste Characterization

Waste Characterization Background

What is Waste Characterization?

Waste characterization means finding out how much paper, glass, food waste, etc. is discarded in your waste stream. Waste characterization information helps in planning how to reduce waste, set up recycling programs, and conserve money and resources.

Who should use this information?

Waste characterization information is designed for solid waste planning; however, anyone interested in the characteristics of the solid waste stream may find it useful. Local government planners, haulers, and recyclers may estimate the amount of certain materials in their waste stream through CalRecycle's waste characterization database. A major part of CalRecycle's waste characterization information helps businesses understand what's in their waste streams, a first step in devising ways to reduce waste and cut disposal costs.

What data is available?

CalRecycle has conducted several waste characterization studies on the statewide waste stream as well as targeted portions such as construction and demolition waste and business waste generators. The most recent study is the 2008 statewide study. Reports and information on all the studies can be found on the waste studies home page.

In 1995 CalRecycle's predecessor, the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) developed, through UCLA's Extension Waste Management and Recycling Certificate Program, a database that can provide information for both the residential and commercial sector waste streams for cities and counties in California. The database has been updated to include data from the 1999 Waste Characterization Study, and is part of an overall Waste Disposal Characterization Method. Separate business waste characterization and residential waste characterization background pages show details of the information included in the database, including waste disposal composition data for many business types.

How is the data collected?

Waste characterization data is collected by taking samples of waste and sorting it into material types like newspaper and aluminum cans, and weighing each type. Typically, samples are taken from trucks delivering waste to landfills and transfer stations from residential, commercial, and self-haul sources. In some cases, samples are taken from individual businesses to develop waste composition data for specific types of businesses (often called a generator-based study). Most of the data here is for the disposed waste stream only, because California has no requirement for collecting detailed recycling data. (More on data development...) However, the 2006 Industry Groups Study (see below) collected data on materials both disposed and diverted by 14 business types.

Waste Generation and Generators

A brief word about "generation" versus "generator." The term "generation" means all waste created within a jurisdiction (or by a business or residence), both that which is disposed and that which is diverted. "Generator" means a person or business that creates the waste. To assist local officials and business persons with planning, CalRecycle has compiled estimated waste generation rates from a variety of sources, for a variety of projects and uses. Waste generation rates for 14 business types were measured in the 2006 CIWMB study “Targeted Statewide Waste Characterization Study: Waste Disposal and Diversion Findings for Selected Industry Groups.” Estimated business waste disposal rates and residential disposal rates from field studies are also available.

Data Limitations

The database described above has been developed based on several important assumptions, and the data has limitations. Please don't assume that this database is absolutely accurate and correct--it isn't. This tool is a starting point to help with integrated waste management planning, not the end point. Please do look at the database, tell us what you think, and if you have any information that can be added to it, we'd love to hear from you.

Last updated: December 21, 2011
Solid Waste Characterization,
Nancy Carr: (916) 341-6216