Americans produce 4.9 pounds of trash per day per person, according to the EPA. In total, that amounts to 292 million tons of non-hazardous waste per day. Most of this waste is sent to landfills.
Even though they sit out of sight and out of mind for most people, landfills are a critical part of our society. They are the final resting place of the massive amounts of materials we consume as part of our linear economy.
In a circular economy, our waste would revert back into useful supplies or fuel for our consumption, but we have a long way to go to get there.
So far, our landfills are mostly used to reduce the risk of wastewater contamination and harvested for methane fuel. But methane is a greenhouse gas roughly 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide for atmospheric heating, so it’s not the best fuel source.
Things you might not know about landfills and solid waste disposal in the US:
Waste management in the US is a big business earning $1 trillion annually. It includes diverse systems: municipal solid waste, industrial waste, waste to energy and recycling. Many municipalities rely on large, publicly traded companies to dispose of waste.
- Closed landfills in the US such as the Puente Hills landfill are covered with soil, and reclaimed as environmental restoration sites. Yet, they still produce methane from the rotting debris, which is used for fuel.
Food waste sent to landfills is responsible for 6% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. That’s more than commercial flights, which are only responsible for 2% of global emissions.
- While landfills in the US are designed to trap gas and prevent leakage to ground water, many low-income countries can’t afford expensive waste management systems. This means they are exposed to more health risks from solid waste. Yet, the US ships much of its contaminated (unrecyclable) plastic abroad, which becomes a burden for the low income countries that accept it. In 2018, it shipped 157,000 shipping containers of plastic waste to other countries.
- Older sections of many landfills are unlined, since regulations for lining landfills didn’t start until the 1990s. Lining landfills prevents garbage wastewater known as leachate from seeping into groundwater.
3 of the Largest Landfills in the US
Location: Riverside county, California (near Los Angeles)
Capacity: Capable of receiving 10,000 tons of solid waste per day
Collection: 43% of the county’s annual waste is processed annually
Waste type: Non-hazardous waste
Interesting facts: El Sobrante powers 3,800 homes from methane gas produced at its 3 gas-to-energy plants. Six hundred acres of the landfill have been designated a permanent habitat preserve.
Location: Sylmar, California (serving Los Angeles)
Capacity: The total site size is 1,036 acres and its waste disposal area is 363 acres
Collection: It is permitted to receive 8,300 tons of MSW per day and it processes 2.5 million tons of waste annually
Waste type: Non-hazardous waste
Interesting facts: The landfill opened in 1958 and is expected to close in 2037.
Location: On the southwest side of Denver
Capacity: The site permits a footprint of 1,363 acres with a remaining capacity of 274 million cubic yards.
Collection: 2.1 million tons annually from the Denver metro area
Waste type: Asbestos and non-hazardous waste
Interesting fact: The site produces 2.8 MW of energy from methane gas each year and 2.6 acres are solely dedicated to asbestos disposal.
Clothes end up in landfills, too
In 2018, 11.3 million tons of municipal solid waste in the US came from textiles, which accounts for 6% of the debris. While only about 15% of that material was recycled, 95% of the textiles thrown away could be reused or recycled.
Obviously sustainable clothing habits can lower the amount of materials sent to landfills. Keep clothes out of the waste stream by buying secondhand clothing, wearing clothes longer, upcycling, repairing, reselling, and swapping clothes.
It’s important for us to all do our part in reducing our overall consumption to reduce the burden on both our resources and our landfills.