Thanks to materials recycling and organic waste diversion (composting), landfills are on a gentle downward slide, but as long as mankind generates solid waste, we’ll still need landfills in some form. The question municipalities should ask themselves is not, “How soon can we close the landfill?” but, “How can we extend our landfill’s life without giving up any more land?”
Strangely enough, it’s the first question that often dominates current thinking about landfills. In the 1980s, the U.S. had approximately 7,600 landfills, but that number shrank to 1,908 by 2013 (the most recent year for which the EPA has figures).
The good news is that this reduction didn’t cause a crisis in most regions, but only because waste management gained sophistication and figured out how to make landfills more high-capacity and efficient than your grandfather’s local “dump.”
More good news is that the EPA estimates waste going into landfills dropped from 145.3 million tons in 1990 to 134.3 million in 2013, despite overall increases in population.
To put the degree of improvement on a personal level, the EPA report states that in 2013, municipal solid waste (MSW) averaged 4.40 pounds per person per day, yet the net per capita discard rate (after materials recovery and combustion with energy recovery) was 2.32 pounds per person per day, roughly 53%. That means 47% of MSW went elsewhere. Hence, landfills’ gentle downward slide.
But until we perfect perpetual recycling for everything or develop the technology to launch waste into space — out of sight, out of mind — landfills will continue to be a necessity.
To give just one example of how recycling efforts fall short in the disposal dilemma, take the largest contributor to landfills, paper and paperboard. Paper fiber does eventually wear out and must be discarded. In 2013, 27% of all landfill waste (68.6 million tons) still consisted of paper products.
As recycling evolves, disposal technology evolves in counterpoint. Macroencapsulated berms are one way to enable landfills to increase capacity without increasing footprint, which can extend their useful lives by decades.
Until we have an ultimate solution for waste disposal or diversion, improving landfills is the soundest alternative.
(You can read the full EPA report, “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2013.”)