By Amelia Murray-Cooper (’22)
Americans toss their trash away each day, often without a second thought as to where it will end up. Landfills are designed to hold municipal solid waste (MSW) and isolate it from society, unintentionally supporting a lack of awareness and concern across the nation. However, landfills are not bottomless pits – they can only contain finite amounts of waste before reaching their capacities. In 2013, Americans produced about 254 million tons of trash, with an average of 4.40 pounds per person per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of this total, about 34.4% was recycled, while the majority was trucked off to landfills. About 54% of national MSW produced is disposed of in landfills each year. According to the US National Library of Medicine, the U.S. per-capita figures for garbage production are rising at a rate of roughly 5% per year. As these MSW disposal sites inevitably approach their legal limits, they demand increased attention and intervention.
According to the EPA, the largest contributors to MSW are organic materials like food remains and yard clippings, which comprised about 28% of the total trash added to landfills in 2013, and paper and cardboard, which made up an additional 27%. Other materials commonly sent to landfills include plastics, metals, rubber, leather, textiles, and wood. In 1988, the EPA announced the first federal standards for landfills. These limits were designed to increase safety by instituting protective measures and ensuring compliance through regular inspections. Under current regulations, landfill facilities are prohibited from accepting hazardous materials like medical or radioactive waste. Methane gas produced during the decomposition of MSW is piped into on-site recovery systems, reducing the health risks to nearby communities and wildlife. Groundwater is protected by layers of compacted soil beneath liners made of composite plastic sheets. Additionally, wells near landfills are regularly monitored to check for toxic fluids that may have passed through the liners and contaminated the groundwater supply. Despite these preventive measures, accidents still occur, compromising the health and safety of surrounding environments.
New landfills cannot be placed too close to critical wetlands, earthquake faults, areas prone to flooding, or airports where the scavenger birds they attract would present hazards for air traffic, according to current EPA regulations. However, the regulations on the process of choosing a location pose social and economic concerns, as less affluent and less informed communities are often targeted as sites for new facilities. People who live near “megafills,” or landfills that accept MSW from several states, are also often upset by the excessive amounts of noise pollution, truck traffic, odors, and pests caused by the landfills. When counties have one waste disposal site, they tend to attract more of these facilities while discouraging cleaner, more economically advantageous industries. In effect, landfills can decrease property values and restrict an area’s economic prospects without offering benefits that offset these problems.
To mitigate these issues, Americans can be more aware of sustainable waste disposal methods. Useful materials like paper, glass, plastic, and metals can be recovered and recycled from MSW, then used for the manufacturing of new products. This reduces the amount of raw virgin materials needed, as well as lowering the amount of mass accumulated in landfills. Organic waste like food scraps or yard trimmings can be composted and broken down naturally. These materials can then be used as natural fertilizers, contributing to a cycle of sustainability. In 2013, recycling and composting prevented about 87.2 million tons of material from entering landfills, according to the EPA. In effect, this also prevented the emission of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air, which is equivalent to taking over 39 million cars off the roads for one year.
One of the most important ways of reducing pressure on landfills is by directly targeting the source of the problem through waste prevention. Companies can design products that use less materials for manufacturing and packaging, in effect lowering the amount of trash that will be thrown away, as well as making the resulting waste less toxic. Responsibility also falls on consumers to actively choose products that produce less waste over less sustainable alternatives. In a nation that thrives off consumerism at the expense of the environment, it is important to remember that trash can never truly be thrown “away” – it will always end up somewhere.
“Municipal Solid Waste Landfills.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 13 Sept. 2018, www.epa.gov/landfills/municipal-solid-waste-landfills.
“Landfill Gas Safety and Health Issues.” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2001, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HAC/landfill/PDFs/Landfill_2001_ch3.pdf
Taylor, David. “Talking Trash: The Economic and Environmental Effects of Landfills.” Environmental Health Perspective, August 1999, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1566504/pdf/envhper00513-0024-color.pdf