A View From the Cheap Seats

July 30, 2008

Talking Trash


By Rich Trzupek

In this brave new green world, there are many popular fictions that have no, or little, basis in reality. One of the most prominent is that it’s vitally important to recycle because “we are running out of landfill space”. Is this true? Let’s take a closer look.

Before we begin, we’ll acknowledge that this is not the only logic that environmental activists use to encourage recycling. Claims that recycling preserves precious natural resources, helps save energy, and reduces water and air pollution are also common. Like most of the claims the enviros make, there is a grain of truth to each of these statements, surrounded by a whole lot of hyperbole. We won’t deal with any of these other claims in this column, however, so that we can focus on the image that resonates so powerfully: that of landfills, full to the brim, taking over the beleaguered American landscape.

In one sense, it might appear that we are indeed running out of landfill space. The number of landfills in the United States has steadily declined over the past thirty years, from about 8,000 in the 80s to a little over 2,000 today.

However, this figure is deceptive, since landfills have gotten bigger. We have moved from small landfills, located close to urban areas, to so-called “mega-fills”, sited far in the country.

The majority of garbage generated in the Chicagoland area, for example, travels about 100 miles to mega-fills in Pontiac, Dixon and in Newton County, Indiana. There are only two municipal waste local fills still operating, one in Morris and the other in Grayslake and they are mostly (but not exclusively) used by their owners.

The end result of this new strategy is that landfill capacity has not changed appreciably over the last thirty years. To look it at another way, while the number of landfills has been reduced by about one-fourth, the size of the average landfill is about four times bigger.

There is a certain logic to this system. It keeps trash away from residential areas, and avoids the traffic and odor problems associated with having a dump next door. Mega-fills are also better constructed than their older, smaller cousins, featuring extensive drainage collection systems, energy recovery systems and liners to prevent leakage. For the towns that choose to host them, the revenues that mega-fills bring in are very attractive as well. Nobody is going to hold a tag day for Pontiac anytime soon.

Pish-posh you say? You don’t find my argument compelling, you say? How many damn landfills can we build before we’re living in our own filth, you ask?

That is an interesting question, one that takes a fair bit of research to track down. If you Google “percentage of land devoted to landfill use”, or conduct any similar search, you’ll find nada. You will find plenty of enviros who post graphs showing the drop in the number of landfills (without the above explanation of what that actually means) and who wring their hands as a result.

But, working with USEPA and industry statistics, our crack Cheap Seats research team was able to figure out the percentage of land in the United States devoted to landfill use. Make your own guess, and we’ll get to the answer a bit later. First, let’s look at some other land uses.

The total land area of the United States is 2.3 billion acres. Of this, about 650 million acres (28.8 per cent) is forested. Another 586 million acres (25.9 per cent) is grassland pasture and range land. “Special uses” account for 525 million acres (23.3 per cent), and the vast majority of this land is natural; state and national parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges for the most part. Adding these three figures together, we see that about 78 per cent of all the land in the United States is undeveloped.

A further 442 million acres (19.5 per cent) is farmland. Adding farmland to the above figure, we can conclude that 97.5 per cent of the nation is either undeveloped land, or used to grow crops. The remaining 2.5 per cent is urban area. Puts the word “sprawl” in a little different perspective, doesn’t it?

As a side note, the amount of crop land has decreased a bit since 1945 (from 451 million acres to 442 million), and the amount of range land has decreased a lot (from 659 million acres to 587 million). But, the amount of forested land plus special use land (which must be counted together, since many forests have been reclassified as state and national parks since 1945, thus moving into the “special use” category) has shot up from 687 million acres in 1945 to over 884 million acres today. So don’t worry about those trees folks. They’re doing just fine.

Still, what about the landfills? Well, now that we have given you a bit of context, let’s answer the question. The total acreage devoted to landfill use in the United States is:

About 560,000 acres.

That is about 0.02% of all the land in the nation. You could fit all of the landfills in the United States into a single, average-sized county in Illinois, and still have room left over. There is about five times less land used for landfills than the total acreage devoted to golf courses in the US (approximately 2.5 million acres, or 0.1%). Plus, the life of an average landfill is about 50 years and, once closed, the land is reclaimed for other uses.

In other words, dear readers, the idea that “we are running out of landfill space”, or that the nation is turning into one big garbage dump, is ludicrous.

Go ahead and recycle away. It’s certainly not harmful, but please don’t believe that it’s vital either. Like so many other environmental arguments, the claim that you are “saving the planet” by recycling is nothing but hype.



  1. I think Bjorn Lomborg made a similar point in The Skeptical Environmentalist – by his calculations, all US landfill waste produced during the 21st century will fit into a relatively small area (equal to a square with sides measuring 14-18 miles, if I remember rightly. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.) My take on recycling is: if it saves money and energy, do it (especially if we’re talking about the costs of cleaning up hazardous stuff like heavy metals.) If it’s more costly in terms of money and energy, don’t do it. Thing is, technology is advancing all the time. We could be wasting time, money and effort recycling something now that would be cost-effective to reclaim in 20 or 30 years’ time, with more advanced technology. One example of technology that could be feasible by the end of the century is, IMO, molecular nanotechnology – we could be eventually seeing machines that could eat landfill waste and spit out usable materials. Science isn’t standing still. So why not store the rubbish in landfill until then?

    Comment by alexjc38 — August 4, 2008 @ 11:06 am | Reply

  2. The numbers do put it into some perspective. Although, information absent is how much money consumers and retailers would save if the retailers refilled bottles rather than fill up new ones. For example, bath gels, body lotions, perfumes, body splashes, etc. Storing rubbish rather than re-using is a bit irresponsible.

    For one thing, landfills give off methane gas, which is also a greenhouse gas and contributes to general air quality erosion.

    All plastic is a petroleum-based product, which perpetuates our addiction to oil (foreign or domestic). Virtually every petroleum-based product is a carcinogen from pesticides to the raw crude itself. The less we use, the better off we’ll be in the long run.

    You also don’t mention that the world is adding approximately 1 billion people to the net population every decade. Each person requires substantial acreage for the various aspects of their lifespan: housing, their place of employment, year-round food supply, vacation, recreation, K-12 education, secondary and post-secondary education, hospitals, government and municipal buildings, horticulture (medicines, perfumes, herbs are plant-based), waste, utilities, forestry, retailers and restaurants, weaponry test fields, manufacturing, among other things that inarguably need substantial space.

    I don’t know the number, but several of those undeveloped lands cannot be developed at all. Examples would be mountainous or desert terrain, sink holes, and other things that I can’t even think of.

    For examples that have nothing to do with environmental concerns, but from a real estate investing perspective, see Todd Leigh Mayo’s “The Art and Science of Successful Investing”.

    For environmentally-sensitive purposes, see former VP, Nobel Prize recipient Al Gore’s book “Earth in the Balance” for reasons why we should put our efforts into everything method available to reduce greenhouse gases. Recycling is one method. Reuse is another.

    Comment by April — November 23, 2008 @ 8:30 pm | Reply

  3. There are many facts that you failed to mention. One, although there are now around 3500+ landfills currently in use, there are close to 40,000 old, abandoned city and county dumps. Two, most of of these old and new dumps are next to large bodies of water and without anything keeping them from leaking into the soil and water. Three, the energy saved from recycling one aluminum can is equivalent to the gas a car uses to go 8 miles if it gets 32 mpg! That’s a LOT of energy for just one can! This would not only help our natural resources tremendously, it would also lower prices since the manufacturers wouldn’t have to pay so much to produce new cans. Four, Recycling in the U.S. is a $236 billion a year industry. More than 56,000 recycling and reuse enterprises employ 1.1 million workers nationwide. (National Recycling Coalition)
    If we created more recycling opportunities we would create more jobs
    Five, Americans are the largest consumers of waste products and yet we are at the bottom of the global environmental ladder. (In other words, people in other countries think we live like pigs. If you’ve done any traveling to other countries you would know this.) Ecology is about responsibility to our planet, our decedents, and our selves; to debate the issue is just trying to justify laziness.

    Comment by Lucy — July 17, 2009 @ 11:25 am | Reply

  4. Quoting April (#2) above…”All plastic is a petroleum-based product, which perpetuates our addiction to oil (foreign or domestic). Virtually every petroleum-based product is a carcinogen from pesticides to the raw crude itself.”

    Check your facts… of a certainty, all plastic bags produced in the U.S. are made from poly resin made from natural gas, and a large portion of other plastic products are also produced from natural gas.

    Also, your blanket statement “the less we use” does not consider the alternatives, which in many respects require the utilization of raw materials that have an even worse environmental impact than plastics, and which are economically not feasible to use.

    And by the way, I am not in the plastics industry.

    Comment by Rob — October 7, 2009 @ 7:50 am | Reply

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