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The Facts About America's Landfills

For many years the media has published innumerable stories which worry that we are running out of landfill space. Such stories properly raise public concerns and have required virtually every community to look at landfill issues.

But if it is fair to raise questions about landfill capacity then it is equally fair to provide some answers. Are we running out of landfill space? The answer may be surprising.

According to much-quoted statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, the number of landfills in the United States dropped from 7,924 in 1988 to 1,654 in 2005.

Changing U.S. Landfill Numbers
Source: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, EPA, page 14)
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The EPA chart plainly shows that the number of landfills in the United States has fallen 79 percent since 1988. Given such a decline, the natural assumption is that a massive reduction in landfill numbers must mean that national landfill capacity has also shrunk.

The problem: Such assumptions are not true.

The EPA states that "the number of MSW landfills decreased substantially over the past 18 years, from nearly 8,000 in 1988 to 1,654 in 2005 -- while average landfill size increased. At the national level, capacity does not appear to be a problem, although regional dislocations sometimes occur." (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, EPA, page 13).

In fact, our landfill supply nationwide has not merely increased, we have a vast overabundance. While the number of landfills has declined, the measure that counts -- landfill capacity -- has increased enormously.

Because we have a growing volume of nationwide landfill capacity, disposal costs have failed to keep pace with inflation. This is the best possible evidence that a landfill shortage does not exist and it's also good news for local homeowners: If there really was a landfill shortage then local garbage disposal fees would soar.

Why do we have a landfill glut? Four reasons stand out:

  1. Consolidation
  2. Recovery
  3. Technology
  4. China: The New Market

Consolidation

The best example of changing landfill numbers occurred in Wisconsin. Between 1986 and 1991 the state closed 850 landfills, opened nine new ones and expanded 12 existing sites. The result? Landfill capacity in the state increased by 44.5 million cubic yards. (See: Landfill Capacity in North America, 1991 Update, National Solid Waste Management Association, table 3, page 4)

You can see where this leads. A scary headline will say "Wisconsin Lost 850 Landfills" but that's plainly not the whole story. A more sensible headline would say "Wisconsin Lost 850 Landfills, Capacity Grew."

The Wisconsin example explains why landfill numbers are falling. Older, less efficient and less environmentally secure landfills are being replaced by larger, more efficient and more environmentally safe facilities. In other words, if you replace 20 thimbles of milk with a single one-gallon jug, it doesn't mean you can't store more milk.

"It became clear in the early 1990's that there was a glut of disposal space, not the widely believed shortage that had drawn headlines in the 1980's," says The New York Times.

"Although many town dumps had closed, they were replaced by fewer, but huge, regional ones. That sent dumping prices plunging in many areas in the early 1990's and led to a long slump in the waste industry.

"Since then," says the Times, "the industry and its followers have been relying on time -- about 330 million tons of trash went into landfills in the United States last year alone, according to Solid Waste Digest, a trade publication -- to fill up some of those holes, erase the glut and send disposal prices skyward again. Instead, dump capacity has kept growing, and rapidly, even as only a few new dumps were built." (See: Rumors of a Shortage of Dump Space Were Greatly Exaggerated, August 12, 2005)

Three companies -- Waste Management, Allied Waste Industries and Republic Services -- collect more than half the nation's trash. Rather than running out of landfill space, they have sufficient capacity to operate for decades assuming no further expansion of existing sites, no additional sites and no benefit from improved technology.

  • As of December 31, 2006, says Waste Management in its 2006 Annual Report, "the weighted average remaining landfill life for all of our owned or operated landfills is approximately 28 years." This is an increase of one year when compared with the 2004 Annual Report.
  • "We have a network of 168 owned or operated active landfills with operating lives ranging from 1 to over 150 years. Based on available capacity using annual volumes, the average life of our landfills approximates 50 years," says Allied Waste Industries in its 2006 Annual Report. In comparison, in its 2004 Annual Report, Allied said that average landfill life was 36 years. In effect, landfill life span increased 38 percent in two years.
  • Republic Services said in its 2006 Annual Report that it "owned or operated 59 landfills, which had 9,707 permitted acres and total available permitted and probable expansion disposal capacity of approximately 1.7 billion in-place cubic yards. It said "the average estimated remaining life of all of our landfills is 27 years," a figure which is down three years from the 2004 estimate.

In fact, however, it would be short-sighted to assume that there will be no further capacity increases. As the Times points out, "in the last four years the three companies have "buried 882 million tons of waste. But the remaining permitted capacity of their combined 410 dumps did not shrink. It expanded over those four years by more than one billion tons. The three companies now expect expansions of another 1.8 billion tons."

Recovery

During the past five decades American attitudes toward recycling and ecology radically changed. Concerns regarding green issues -- once largely restricted to environmental activists -- entered the mainstream and impacted such issues as automobile mileage, global warming and "smart" zoning.

Environmental concerns also influenced landfill policies and materials recovery. Figures from the EPA reflect a sea change in national thinking.

What we now know is that economic and population growth are both possible even as landfill usage declines. Figures from the 45-year period between 1960 and 2005 show a dramatic change in the way we reduce, re-use and recycle:

  • The generation of municipal solid waste almost tripled from 88.1 million tons to 245.7 million tons.
  • The population grew 65 percent from 179.98 million people to 296.41 million, an increase of 116.43 million people.
  • The volume of material landfilled amounted to 133.3 million tons in 2005 -- that's less than the amount landfilled in 1980 when the country had almost 70 million fewer people.
  • The amount of material landfilled per day per person in 2005 was less than the amount landfilled in 1960.

Combine reduced landfill usage with increased landfill capacity and the result is diminished demand for landfill space nationwide.

The bottom line? Despite a vast population increase, nationwide landfill use is down and materials recovery is up. Seen another way, a larger population is sending less to landfills. Efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle are paying off. No less important, with improved technology and increasing collection efforts, even better results may be possible.

US Landfill Statistics
(Millions of Tons)
Activity 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2003 2004 2005
MSW Generation  88.1 121.1 151.6 205.2 237.6 240.4 247.3 245.7
Recovered for recycling 5.6 8.0 14.5 29.0 52.7 55.8 57.2 58.4
Recovered for composting neg. neg. neg. 4.2 16.5 19.1 20.5 20.6
Total Materials Recovery 5.6 8.0 14.5 33.2 69.1 74.9 77.7 79.0
Combustion with Energy Recovery 0.0 0.4 2.7 29.7 33.7 33.7 34.1 33.4
Discards to landfill, other disposal (tonnage) 82.5 112.7 134.4 142.3 134.8 131.9 135.5 133.3
Discards to landfill, other disposal (percentage) 93.6% 93.1% 88.6% 69.3% 56.7% 54.9% 54.8% 54.3%
Discards to landfill, other disposal, per pound, per person, per day 2.51 3.02 3.24 3.12 2.62 2.49 2.52 2.46
Population (million) 179.979 203.984 227.255 249.907 281.422 290.850 293.660 296.410
Source: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, EPA, pages 2 and 3)

Technology

We not only have vastly larger landfills, we are not only putting less in them, we also use them more efficiently. A given amount of landfill space will hold about 30 percent more content today than in the past.

Waste companies and municipalities, says the Times are "burying trash more tightly, so that each ton takes up less space, increasingly using giant 59-ton compacting machines guided by global positioning systems that show the operator when he has rolled over a section of the dump enough times. They cover trash at the end of the day, to keep it from blowing away, with tarps or foam or lawn clippings instead of the thick layers of soil that formerly ate up dump capacity." (See: Rumors of a Shortage of Dump Space Were Greatly Exaggerated, August 12, 2005)

We don't know what benefits technology will provide in the future, but what we do know is this: To date landfill usage has become substantially more efficient due to better management practices. It is entirely possible and reasonable that in the future we will also see improved landfill efficiency, thus limiting the need for additional landfill capacity.

China: The New Market

The richest woman in China, Zhang Yin, is worth $3.4 billion. But unlike other Chinese entrepreneurs who have made their money by exporting to the West, Zhang built her fortune another way: She's the "queen of waste paper," China's largest importer of scrap paper. (See: China's Richest Woman: From Waste To Wealth, China Daily, November 20, 2006)

For many years there has been a growing and massive trade imbalance with China. For the period from 2000 through 2006, our balance of trade with China showed a loss of nearly $1 trillion ($990.1 billion).

Not only is the trade imbalance growing, it is likely to increase as China begins to export big-ticket items such as cars, trucks and planes.

US-China Trade Balance
Year Exports Imports Balance
2006 $55,185.7 $287,77.4 -$232,588.6
2005 $41,925.3  $243,470.1 -$201,544.8
2004 $34,744.1 $196,682.0 -$161.938.0
2003 $28,367.9  $152,436.1 -$124,068.2
2002     $22,127.7  $125,192.6 -$103,064.9
2001 $19,182.3  $102,278.4 -$83,096.1
2000 $16,185.2  $100,018.2 -$83,833.0
All figures are in millions of U.S. dollars.
Source: Foreign Trade Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau
 
 

There is, however, one area where the U.S. is a major exporter to China. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, "the United States shipped 7.7 million metric tons of waste paper to China in 2005." Between 1995 and 2005, the USITC reports that "Chinese imports of wood pulp and waste paper from the United States increased by 500 percent over the same period, while imports of finished paper declined by 12 percent." (See: The Effects of Increasing Chinese Demand on Global Commodity Markets, pages 1-4 and 4-14)

In the U.S. we measure large weights in terms of tons, however the measure used for waste paper exports by the USITC is metric tons. While a single U.S. ton weighs 2,000 pounds, a metric ton is substantially larger, weighing in at 2,204.62 pounds. In effect, the 7.7 million metric tons of scrap paper sent to China in 2005 is actually equal to 8,487,787 U.S. tons.

The huge and growing Chinese market for U.S. scrap paper created by Zhang and others has important landfill implications in the United States. The waste paper shipped to China each year for recycling into paper, cartons and other products represents nearly 8.5 million tons of paper that will not be deposited in American landfills -- stuff we throw out that will now bring needed dollars back to the U.S. 

What is the value of scrap paper sent to China? According to the International Trade Administration, U.S. scrap exports to China were worth $169 million in 2001, a figure which topped $1 billion in 2006.