Landfill Waste … Most of it comes from You and Me

From on January 21, 2009 in Green Remodeling

LandfillGreen WednesdayIt all starts with a walk to the curb. There we deposit our week’s worth of garbage and there we leave it. The following morning we repeat the previous night’s stroll, returning the now empty cans to the side of the house. For most of us, that is where our part in America’s waste cycle ends, or at least our awareness of it. While our trash does go away every week, it does not disappear. Even though we don’t see landfills from our front stoops they are there, and they are growing.

From 1960 to 2007, the average waste a person creates has nearly doubled from 2.68 to 4.62 pounds per person per day, according to an EPA report. All of this trash from our homes goes to Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfills. As of the year 2000, there were over 3,000 active MSW landfills and well over 10,000 old landfills in the United States. Most are now full. Therefore much of the trash we generate is hauled to local transfer stations where it is later shipped to other landfills, often in other states. Hence the increasing influence of waste disposal on greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2007, Americans produced over 254 million tons of solid waste. Of that total, 85 million tons were recycled or composted, roughly 33 percent. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, not all municipal waste comes directly from our homes. Under U.S. law, municipal landfills are also allowed to collect construction and demolition waste, non-hazardous sludge, and industrial solid waste.

Still the majority of waste occupying modern landfills comes straight from you and me. To break it down, the EPA estimates that 55 to 65 percent of waste is generated at home. Of the total municipal waste, paper and paperboard account for the highest percentage at 33%. Yard trimmings and food scraps: 25%. Plastics: 12%. Metals: 8%. Wood and glass come in at 6% and 5%, respectively.

It is therefore evident that the majority of waste being dumped in today’s landfills is in fact recyclable. While this may illicit a shaking head or a sense of incredulity, considering that so many of us recycle, it is a sure sign that many homes and businesses still do not. But don’t get disheartened. The amount of materials recycled increases every year as well. Americans recycled 63 million tons of waste (excluding composting) in 2007. That is nearly 2 million tons more than 2006.

Not only that, another trend I noticed in the EPA report is that personal waste generation (lbs/person/day) almost leveled off since 1990 and even declined slightly since 2000. Although overall MSW generation has continued to increase at a fairly steady rate, which implies that commercial and industrial recycling is not keeping up. But nonetheless, awareness and action involving that infamous Mobius strip (reduce-reuse-recycle) is increasing.

So what’s in a landfill? Paper, cardboard, yard waste, food scraps, plastics, and other assortments of garbage. Yes, most of it enters the landfill as residential waste. And yes, community recycling and composting programs are making a difference, with a bigger impact every year. But still, 4.62 pounds of trash per person per day is a lot of trash. Nearly 70 percent of that still hits landfills.

Landfills are more modern and secure than ever. Some are even equipped to create energy (methane gas) from the waste. Nonetheless there is no such thing as a clean landfill, even paper and grass biodegrade very slowly under landfill conditions. The need to reduce, reuse, and recycle is still just as important today as it ever was.

Here are some links; including sources for all these numbers I’ve been rattling off and some to get your very own compost or recycling regimen started:

Great picure by alex_lee2001