U.S. Landfills Contain Twice as Much Trash as EPA Estimated

U.S. Landfills Contain Twice as Much Trash as EPA Thought

A new study shows that U.S. landfills contain more than twice as much solid waste as we previously thought based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Researchers found that we throw away 289 million tons of solid waste, which is more than twice as much as the EPA’s original 135 million ton estimate. In fact, the number even exceeds the World Bank’s predictions for waste totals in 2025, according to Live Science.

The new figures differ drastically from former estimates because they’re based on actual landfill waste weights rather than the figures EPA used to make its estimations from industry associates, businesses, and the U.S. Census. This is because in 2010 a new Greenhouse Gas Reporting rule began requiring that large landfills start reporting the weight of the trash entering their facilities. Of the 1,200 landfills included in the study, 900 were still accepting waste.

“I think the disposal rate and capacity numbers are interesting on their own, but I think in the bigger picture, it provides us a distinct, data-driven roadmap for where we can target emissions reductions in the waste sector,” study lead author Jon Powell, a doctoral student of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale University, said in a statement.

We will still have enough space for the onslaught of waste that our consumption-driven economy throws away, but we may need to transport it longer distances, according to LiveScience:

The country won’t run out of landfill space anytime soon, but sometimes the landfills that have more space are far away from cities that need their services, said Morton Barlaz, a professor and head of the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at North Carolina State University, who was not involved with the study.

But the larger issue becomes the impact that landfills may have on global climate change. As waste decomposes in landfills, methane is emitted into the atmosphere. In fact, landfills are the third largest source of methane in the U.S. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. And greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane slow the absorption of heat into space. Meaning, as they trap heat in our atmosphere, it can cause global climate change. So beyond waste management, landfills are a significant contributor to the greenhouse gases that can cause global climate change.

At a personal level, if you want to reduce your household trash, waste reduction should be your first priority followed by reuse and then recycling and composting. Just because it can go in the recycling bin doesn’t mean you should necessarily give yourself a pat on the back. And since plastic never decomposes, it’s best to avoid it completely because often times it doesn’t even make it to landfills, rather, it ends up crowding our oceans instead.

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Image of a totally full trash truck in a landfill from Shutterstock