Surprise! Americans send twice as much trash to landfills as we thought

landfill
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 United Nations Photo

For years, the EPA has relied on estimates to calculate how much trash was heading to landfills every year. Those estimates were made based on what businesses reported indirectly to the government, population data and patterns of consumption. But starting in 2010, the EPA started asking municipal landfills to measure and report exactly how much waste was heading into the dump so that they could make better estimates of methane emissions being released into the atmosphere.

A new Yale study of those numbers, which the EPA partially funded, shows that the real amount of trash going into landfills is twice as much as the EPA estimates.

The Yale team looked at the records from 1,200 landfills and calculated based on weight that 289 million tons of trash were dumped in 2012 rather than the 135 million tons that the EPA estimated for that year. The Yale team then calculated that in 2013, waste sent to landfills increased to 294 million. That works out to 1,871 pounds per person in that year or five pounds per person per day.

The discrepancy between those numbers also means that recycling rates may actually be lower than thought. One of the lead researchers, Jon Powell, said that in 2012 the EPA estimated that Americans recycled 34.5 percent of their waste. If the amount of trash matches his team's calculation, the recycling rate would actually be 21.4 percent, but that is just an extrapolation based on the larger volume of trash.

The scary thing is that these higher numbers mean methane emissions from landfills are higher than we thought, with landfills that are still receiving trash releasing 91 percent of those emissions.

“We’ve got a lot of waste going into landfills, more than what’s been reported before,” said Powell. “What that means for the long term is that we’re going to have greater emissions.”

The EPA just introduced tighter methane emission restrictions for landfills in August with the goal of reducing emissions by 480,000 tons a year by 2025, but Americans will have to make changes in their consumption and waste disposal habits too.

You can do your part to reduce the waste going into landfills by first buying less, and then reusing, composting and recycling more.

Tags: EPA | Recycling | Waste

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