I see it rising alongside the highway as I take my kids to the doctor, a vast hill of green, looking like a man-made ski slope or a verdant rolling hill plucked out of the Irish countryside. Except for one thing stands out: Perched on top is a Waste Management truck, the logo on the side serving as advertisement for the waste disposal service.
That green hill is, of course, a landfill, one of around 2,000 active landfills in the United States. As much as I try to recycle, there are still a few bags of trash each week that head to the landfill — perhaps that very one I pass by on the highway. So I decided to learn a little more about my garbage’s final destination. Some of what I learned surprised me — and I bet it will surprise you, too.
1. There used to be far more active landfills than there are today. In 1986, there were nearly 7,700 landfills in the United States. But that’s not necessarily cause for celebration: Today’s landfills may be fewer, but they are larger and more remote, which means they require more energy to transport waste to them.
2. The largest landfill in the United States is in Nevada. Called Apex Regional, it receives around nine thousand tons of municipal solid waste a day and has the room to be operational for at least the next two hundred years. America’s biggest landfill used to be Puente Hills Landfill, which was in operation for around fifty years and has an elevation of five hundred feet. Plans to turn it into a park were green-lighted last year, and work is underway to create a 142-acre park with hiking and biking trails, an outdoor amphitheater, picnic areas, and wildlife habitats. A gondola will shuttle visitors to the top. It’s that big!
3. Some states send their trash to other states. I recently learned that my home state of Georgia was one such recipient, as are several of my neighboring states such as Alabama and South Carolina. Other states pay as little as $19 per ton for the privilege of sending their trash to Alabama. By contrast, states such as New Jersey or New York can sometimes charge around $100 per ton to import garbage. This price differential can lead to trash being shipped large distances before ending up in a landfill, which increases the carbon footprint of the trash.
4. Landfills can be used to generate power. Landfills are one of the largest producers of methane gas, which contributes to climate change. But this landfill gas can be harnessed to create electricity or other forms of energy through extraction wells and pipelines. This can improve air quality around landfills and help prevent greenhouse gasses emitted from landfills from going into the atmosphere, but as of publication, less than ten percent of landfills in the US are equipped with operational gas capture systems.
5. The first modern US landfill opened in 1937. The landfill, in Fresno, California, was the first to use the trench and compaction method of waste management, wherein trash and dirt are layered together and compacted. It closed in 1987 and today is a National Historic Landmark.
6. Landfills follow stringent regulations. Landfills superseded city dumps (in which trash was simply piled in a pit) when experts realized that chemicals were leaching into the soil and nearby waterways. As a way to manage trash as it decomposes, landfills must be lined with two feet of compacted clay and a flexible membrane to contain leaching. Locations are also chosen carefully to avoid contamination of waterways or flood plains.
7. Surprisingly, the US doesn’t have the biggest proportion of landfill-bound waste. That distinction goes to the United Kingdom, which sends about 90 percent of its waste to the landfill. The top prize for least landfilling relative to Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) goes to Sweden, where they convert most of their waste into energy by incineration (capturing the bi-products so they don’t go into the atmosphere) thus only about 1 percent of the country’s waste ends up in a landfill.
Modern living tends to create a lot of waste, and until our deeply rooted systems change, landfills will be a necessary part of our lives. I’m committing to doing my part to reduce my waste and to return as much valuable materials back into the production cycle through recycling as I can, so that only that which is absolutely necessary ends up wasting away in that landfill by the highway.