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The primary source of solid waste is the production of commodities and byproducts from solid materials. Everything that is produced is eventually discarded. A secondary source of solid waste is the natural cycle of plant growth and decay, which is responsible for the portion of the waste stream referred to as yard waste or vegetative waste.

The amount a product contributes to the waste stream is proportional to two principal factors: the number of items produced and the size of each item. The number of items produced, in turn, is proportional to the useful life of the product and the number of items in use at any one time. Newspapers are the largest contributor to MSW because they are larger than most other items in MSW, they are used in large numbers, and they have a useful life of only one day. In contrast, pocket knives make up a negligible portion of MSW because relatively few people use them, they are small, and they are typically used for years before being discarded.

MSW is characterized by products that are relatively small, are produced in large numbers, and have short useful lives. Bulky waste is dominated by products that are large but are produced in relatively small numbers and have relatively long useful lives. Therefore, a given mass of MSW represents more discreet acts of discard than the same mass of bulky waste. For this reason, more data are required to characterize bulky waste to within a given level of statistical confidence than are required to characterize MSW.

Most MSW is generated by the routine activities of everyday life rather than by special or unusual activities or events. On the other hand, activities that deviate from routine, such as trying different food or a new recreational activity, generate waste at a higher rate than routine activities. Routinely purchased items tend to be used fully, while unusual items tend to be discarded without use or after only partial use.

In contrast to MSW, most bulky waste is generated by relatively infrequent events, such as the discard of a sofa or refrigerator, the replacement of a roof, the demolition of a building, or the resurfacing of a road. Therefore, the composition of bulky waste is more variable than the composition of MSW.

In terms of generation sites, the principal sources of MSW are homes, businesses, and institutions. Bulky waste is also generated at functioning homes, businesses, and institutions; but the majority of bulky waste is generated at construction and demolition sites. At each type of generation site, MSW and bulky waste are generated under four basic circumstances:

Packaging is removed or emptied and then discarded. This waste typically accounts for approximately 35 to 40% of MSW prior to recycling. Packaging is generally less abundant in bulky waste. The unused portion of a product is discarded. In MSW, this waste accounts for all food waste, a substantial portion of wood waste, and smaller portions of other waste categories. In bulky waste, this waste accounts for the majority of construction waste (scraps of lumber, gypsum board, roofing materials, masonry, and other construction materials). A product is discarded, or a structure demolished, after use. This waste typically accounts for 30 to 35% of MSW and the majority of bulky waste. Unwanted plant material is discarded. This waste is the most variable source of MSW and is also a highly variable source of bulky waste. Yard wastes such as leaves, grass clippings, and shrub and garden trimmings commonly account for as little as 5% or as much as 20% of the MSW generated in a county-sized area on an annual basis. Plant material can be a large component of bulky waste where trees or woody shrubs are abundant, particularly when lots are cleared for new construction.

Packaging tends to be concentrated in MSW because many packages destined for discard as MSW contain products of which the majority is discarded in wastewater or enters the atmosphere as gas instead of being discarded as MSW. Such products include food and beverages, cleaning products, hair- and skin-care products, and paints and other finishes.

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