Did you know that all the paper and plastic cups and utensils thrown away annually could lap the earth’s equator 300 times? Or that a 12-foot wall from Los Angeles to New York could be built every year with the amount of office paper thrown away? Americans alone generate an average of 4.4 pounds of trash per day, which is the equivalent in cubic feet to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
What in the world are we doing with all that stinky garbage? We mostly toss it into landfills. And landfills are among the top contributors to climate change and threats to human health.
The list of environmental offenses goes on and on:
- Landfills are the third largest source of man-made methane gas in the United States.
- Methane has 84-86 times more global warming potential over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide.
- Methane makes up 40 percent of all the greenhouse gases causing climate change – 75% higher than scientists previously thought.
- Besides methane, landfills emit 176 different air pollutants, including 46 hazardous air pollutants, 4 known carcinogens and 13 probable carcinogens.
- The World Health Organization considers air pollution the single most important environmental threat – affecting more than 80% of city dwellers and killing at least 7 million people each year.
In the United States, there are 8,300 dangerous landfill fires per year. Dumps also produce harmful liquids that drain out and contaminate our groundwater reservoirs. (See the Bridgeton Landfill in Missouri for an example of both issues.)
The good news is that despite meager media attention to the trash problem, consumer demand for sustainability is ramping up, and private sector zero-landfill solutions are becoming more prevalent. Google, Apple and Nestle recently pledged to divert up to 100% of their waste from landfills. This interest in circular economy principles is signaling a new era of rethinking industrial waste. If these companies design products carefully and reuse materials, they won’t produce as much trash.
The needle is moving in the public sector too. New York City, for example, is scaling up its residential compost collection pilot program. By focusing on methane, New York is tackling organic materials in landfills, a critical part of reducing emissions. Table scraps are one of the largest categories of waste in America and a significant source of methane when the materials decompose.
With landfill alternatives gaining more traction, it’s important to remember the individual’s role in “dumping the dump.” Next time you’re offered a plastic fork or a printed document you don’t really need, remember to consider the dirty truth about landfills!