This post was originally written March 2018 and updated with more relevant information Sept. 2020
Let’s talk trash… More specifically, 267.8 million tons worth because, shockingly, that’s about how much waste is created in the United States every year.
We’ve all heard about the importance of proper waste disposal. Still, most of us are unaware of where our trash goes, or, more specifically, the negative impacts that arise from disposing of it improperly. Of the estimated 267.8 million tons of waste generated annually, approximately 32.5 percent of this trash is recycled or composted, 12.5 percent is incinerated, and the remaining 55 percent is buried in landfill.
Considering the majority of our waste gets disposed in a landfill, we wanted to fill you in on what really happens behind the scenes and explore some of the most common questions you may have, like: Are we running out of landfill space?
In this blog post, we get to the bottom of what a landfill actually is, what really happens to our waste in landfill, the impacts of disposing of materials in this way, and the alternative disposal methods that exist as replacements. Continue reading for more information!
What is A Landfill?
The landfill is a place to dispose of waste and other materials that are then buried underground and covered with soil. In the 1980s, America’s landfill usage peaked when nearly 150 million tons of garbage was sent to landfills each year. Today, despite having more sustainable disposal methods available, such as recycling, we still send more than 100 million tons of trash into landfills, annually.
Not only are landfills unsightly to look at, but they also pose a number of environmental, economic, and health problems in local communities and beyond. The variety of materials thrown into landfills, plus the chemicals that result when garbage decomposes, creates a toxic blend called leachate, which results in large amounts of pollution. These toxins can leach into groundwater and affect the local environment. Electronic waste, for example, contains various types of dangerous chemicals, including lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, and brominated flame retardants. When disposed of in landfill, these hazardous materials eventually leach into the environment, polluting air, soil, and water, impacting the livelihood of countless people living near landfills throughout the world.
Furthermore, when organic material is thrown into landfill, it decomposes anaerobically and releases methane emissions—a greenhouse gas that is 28x more potent than carbon dioxide. The greenhouses gases also act as a blockage in our atmosphere, not allowing heat to escape the Earth. This process, known as the greenhouse effect, causes the atmosphere to trap more heat than it previously has, and is one of the main contributors to the ongoing climate change crisis.
Many businesses are also not aware of the costs associated with disposing of waste in landfill. Believe it or not, it's much more expensive to send waste to landfill, or incinerate it, than it is to recycle materials. And, tipping fees, which are fees for disposing of waste in landfills, continue to rise as waste production increases. This fee covers the maintenance and operating costs of the landfill. According to the Resource Center powered by Busch Systems, “Tipping fees can vary depending on the space available in the landfill or if challenges from the community or regulations make it difficult to start a new landfill.”
Source: Save On Energy
At the rate that we dispose of waste in landfill, some reports suggest that we’re on track to run out of landfill space sooner than we think. According to a Global Citizen article, “It looks like the 2,000 active landfills in the US that hold the bulk of this trash are reaching their capacity, according to a new report by the Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Protocol (SWEEP)”. The report also estimates that the United States is on pace to run out of room in landfills within 18 years, potentially creating an environmental disaster.
Alternative Waste Disposal Methods
Even though landfilling is the most popular form of waste disposal, there are many efficient, easy, and cost-effective alternative waste management methods available. Businesses can begin composting, recycling, and, even, reusing their materials to reduce the amount of trash sent to landfill! In fact, you may be surprised to learn that many of the materials we currently dispose of in landfill can be easily recycled, composted, or reused.
Below, you will find a breakdown of what makes up municipal solid waste (MSW):
PAPER & PAPERBOARD (29%)
A single sheet of paper can be repurposed 5-7 times.
Plastic Products (12%)
Around 91% of plastic isn't recycled, meaning 6.3 billion tons live in landfill.
The average person could compost 1,200 pounds of organic waste.
Containers / Packaging (30%)
Nearly a third of waste in landfill consists of packaging materials.
Feel free to share the graphic below!
Completely eliminating waste is not realistic, but EPA research suggests that waste prevention is the best management option, followed by recycling. Furthermore, recycling does more than just benefit your business by diverting waste—it also benefits the planet by eliminating the need for raw materials, minimizing the release of greenhouse gases, and saving energy. When recyclables do go to landfill, more resources must be extracted in order to replace the discarded materials to create something new. However, when you recycle materials it helps bypass the energy extraction process, producing energy savings in the production and manufacturing of goods. In fact, recycling one ton of paper can save 17 trees from being cut down, representing a 64 percent reduction in energy consumption, a 58 percent reduction in water usage, and a 60-pound reduction of air pollution. Moreover, recycling leads to decreased waste costs overall, which helps businesses cut costs and impact their bottom line in the long run!
Companies can start by working with a dedicated waste and recycling provider, like RoadRunner Recycling, to start this process and improve their recycling rates for the four most landfilled items: paper, organic material, plastics, and packaging.
Now that you understand the negative impacts associated with disposing of waste in landfill, it is time to start planning to dispose of your company’s waste in a more efficient and sustainable manner. Perhaps by reading this post, you’ve realized that your business can focus more closely on recycling, or that maybe there’s an opportunity for composting organic material. Whichever focus you choose to prioritize, there are several waste disposal methods businesses can tackle that can keep your valuable materials out of landfill. (read for more recycling tips: The 5 R'S: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle)
In the comments section below, let us know how you manage your waste or reach out to us here for help getting started. Thank you, as always, for reading with us!