The incredible volume of landfill waste produced each year poses enormous challenges for the health of our planet, creating toxic environments, impacts to human health, and yet-to-be-understood long-term issues. Not to mention, they are just plain ugly.
Despite decades of messaging and efforts by many to “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle”, the fact is we are generating more landfill trash now than ever before. Even worse, the pace of waste creation is projected to nearly double globally over the next 15 years.
If you’re an average American, you are producing 4.4 pounds of trash every single day. That is significantly more than the global average of 2.6 pounds. In aggregate, Americans generated approximately 250 million tons of trash last year, according to U.S. EPA estimates.
The environmental problems caused by landfills are numerous. Due to massive global scale, some say the scope of our global trash crisis could actually exceed the challenges we currently face with climate change. Two critical growing impacts of bulging landfills are the emission of toxic gases and poisonous water.
Greenhouse Gas Pollution
Our landfill problems not only can be compared to climate change, but they also contribute to it. As organic material such as food scraps break down in a landfill, they eventually release methane into the atmosphere. This greenhouse gas is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane from landfill sites account for 12% of total global methane emissions and almost 5% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the EPA, methane causes 21 times as much warming as an equivalent mass of carbon dioxide over a 100-year time period. In the first 20 years after its release, the intensity is much more severe. During that time period, methane is 84 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. California and Texas, with their high populations, have the greatest landfill-related methane emissions.
Ground Water Pollution
Toxic waste that leaches from landfills into our soil and groundwater are extremely harmful to human, animal, and plant life. The protective barriers and stricter standards of modern landfills only delay the inevitable. Even though today’s landfills cannot legally receive “hazardous” wastes, they can still slip in, resulting in a dangerous toxic soup.
Aside from industrial and household chemicals, growing amounts of electronic waste containing lead, cadmium, and mercury are serious threats to water quality issues. The EPA reports that in 2009, of the 2.37 million tons of electronic waste, 25 percent or less were recycled. Noxious e-waste materials accumulate and can eventually penetrate landfill linings or be washed away periodically by rain and into our municipal water supplies.
Carbon Emissions From Transporting Waste
Tougher environmental standards over the past several decades resulted in waste management companies closing many facilities, replacing local dump sites with a smaller number of regional “mega” landfills, often located hundreds of miles away from the sources of waste generation. Between 1986 and 2009, the number of U.S. landfills decreased from 7,683 to 1,908 – a 75% decline in less than 25 years.
Waste now must be transported farther to reach these new, larger landfills. Longer trips create increased greenhouse gas emissions from trucks, trains, and barges. For example, one ton of garbage traveling 500 miles by train could generate 115 pounds of carbon dioxide. Trucking is even less efficient, and produces more air pollution.
The Impact on Future Generations
The billions of tons of junk we’re depositing into landfills are creating issues for future generations that we don’t yet even fully understand. Much of this buried garbage — especially petroleum-based plastics or polystyrene used to make bottles, cups and containers — breaks down at a very slow rate and contain known toxins. The U.S. EPA estimates that plastic containers constitute close to 50% of recyclable landfill waste, and that Americans currently only recycle about 27 percent of plastic bottles.
The remaining 73% goes to landfill, or is dumped in the environment. Because plastic containers have only been around for about 60 years, there’s no firsthand evidence of their decomposition rate. Some sources cite a 500-year estimate, while others use a more conservative lifespan of 1,000 years, or more. Regardless of who is correct, these figures underscore the fact that today’s landfill waste will cause difficulties for a very, very long time. It’s not a nice mess to leave our grandchildren.
So What Can You Do Now?
We can all do our part by reusing and recycling more materials and diverting them from landfills. We’ve complied some great resources that Texans can use to increase their recycling and reuse rates. You can see them all here. If you know of any others, please let us know. Spreading knowledge is the first step to combating this problem. Together, we can each make a difference by consuming less and always trying to find a better alternative to the landfill.