All Commentary
Saturday, April 1, 1995

Are We Burying Ourselves in Garbage?

The Crisis Mentality Has Distorted Our Judgment About Waste Disposal

Mr. Shedenhelm is a Library Technical Assistant in the Periodicals Department of the University of Georgia Libraries. In addition, he is a senior in economics at the same institution. He publishes and edits Summa Philosophiae, a monthly philosophical journal.

One of the foremost difficulties facing American cities is where to put the refuse generated every day. It is widely thought that the United States is literally burying itself in garbage–producing mountains of waste and running out of places to put it.

The alleged crisis has prompted a renewed interest in incineration, source reduction, composting, and recycling. Recycling has been the most popular, and the most costly. Outside of saving natural resources, saving our landfills is the most frequently cited reason for recycling.

If the crisis mentality that shrouds the issue of landfills is found to be largely a matter of political misinformation and factual error, then we will have uncovered a major misdirection of local, state, and federal policy. An objective examination of refuse generation and management is in order.

Are Americans Producing Mountains of Trash?

A popular idea in public discourse today is that the United States produces an overwhelming amount of trash–so much that our landfills will not be able to handle the quantity. The most eloquent symbol of this viewpoint was the “garbage barge,” which in the late 1980s left Long Island and could not find a port or country willing to accept its 3.168 tons of refuse.[1]

The actual data (such as they are) on the amount of municipal solid waste produced present us with more questions than answers. “Municipal solid waste” is defined as “solid waste generated at residences, commercial establishments (e.g., offices, retail shops, restaurants), and institutions (e.g., hospitals and schools).”[2] The first question concerns the matter that is being quantified. For instance, an EPA report published in 1990 states that during the years 1960 through 1988 American commercial and residential refuse amounted to 156 million tons, i.e., 3.47 pounds per person per day. This statistic for refuse did not include the 13 percent of discards that were recycled.[3] Many studies of solid waste generation rates are unclear about their definition of “waste,” e.g., whether automobile bodies, ash from industrial boilers, industrial waste, construction, and demolition debris were included in their analysis.[4] (According to William Rathje, an archaeologist who has spent over two decades investigating actual landfill contents, construction and demolition debris represents about 12 percent by volume of a typical landfill.)[5]

Part of the difficulty results from the methodology employed. One popular method of estimating the quantity of solid waste is the “materials-flow” approach. As indicated in Facing America’s Trash, this technique estimates solid waste generation without any actual measurement at the points of generation (households, offices, stores) or disposal (landfills, incinerators, recycling facilities). Instead, this method makes assumptions about such things as the lifetimes of products, recycling rates, and the effects of imports and exports.[6] One difficulty of this approach, as Rathje and Murphy observe, is that certain counterfactual assumptions tend to be made about product durability. For instance, one study that used the materials-flow approach simply assumed that major household appliances have a useful life of 20 years, after which time they are thrown away. In fact, appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators last much longer in low-income households and as a source of parts no longer carried by dealers.[7]

A second question regarding the data of solid waste generation is one of temporal perspective. The earlier-cited figure of daily per capita solid waste generation (3.47 pounds per day) covered the period after 1960. Not taken into account is the greater waste per capita generated in previous ages. According to Rathje and Murphy, there were over three million horses living in cities at the turn of the century. Each one produced at least twenty pounds of manure daily. Hundreds of thousands of these horses died each year and had to be disposed of. In addition, over twelve hundred pounds per year of coal ash (for cooking and heating) from each American had to be gotten rid of.[8]

Historian Martin Melos found that between 1900 and 1920 Manhattan residents generated an annual average of 160 pounds of garbage, 1,230 pounds of ashes, and 97 pounds of rubbish.[9] The total comes to 1,487 pounds, per capita, 17 percent higher than the above-cited 1,267 pounds allegedly produced by each American annually between the years 1960 through 1988.

According to figures from the American Public Works Association and the Environmental Protection Agency, as late as 1939 cities like Newark, New Jersey, and Austin, Texas, reported annual per capita discards of garbage, ash, and rubbish 20 percent greater than the refuse of the average American in 1988.[10] True, affluence may cause more discards (since in one sense affluence means there are more things per capita to eventually discard). But along with a higher standard of living come phenomena such as “light-weighting,” where the producers of a commodity (e.g., plastic cola bottles and aluminum cans) find a way to produce the same service with less material. As Judd Alexander observes, fast-food restaurants also help decrease waste: a typical McDonald’s discards less than two ounces of garbage for each customer served.[11]

Affluence may also induce less waste of food. RathJe and Murphy found that due to packaging, U.S. households produce a third less garbage than households in Mexico City (even after correcting for family size). The main reason for this difference is that a greater percentage of food in Mexico City is bought “fresh” (i.e., unpackaged), resulting in a larger volume of spoilage and more refuse.[12]

The news about waste generation is not all bad. As Clark Wiseman points out, between 1960 and 1970 municipal solid waste grew at an annual rate of 3.2 percent. Between 1970 and 1986, the annual growth rate declined to 1.7 percent (with the amount entering landfills growing by only 1.0 percent). This rate is far less than the growth rate of the consumption of goods and services.[13]

A few cities have actually kept track of the solid waste disposed over certain periods of time. According to Harvey Alter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles had an unchanged per capita generation of solid waste disposal (by weight) between 1967 and 1976. He also concludes that for the nation as a whole, municipal solid waste generation was almost constant on a per capita basis.[14]

Are Landfills Not Being Built Fast Enough?

The data for landfill openings and closings are similarly ambiguous. To begin with, a modern landfill is not a “dump”—a distinction with more than semantic characteristics. A dump was basically an open pit, but the modern landfill has a system to collect and process leachate and manage the methane gas generated by organic decomposition. It has a clay and plastic lining, and is covered over daily with about six inches of dirt.[15]

The modern landfill is a complex system with a lifetime much shorter that its predecessors. The majority of sanitary landfills are designed for approximately ten years of operation.[16] Hence, in any five-year period, half of these close. We are not necessarily in any “landfill shortage” just because in 1989 we could say that “by 1995, . . . half of our nation’s landfills will be closed.”[17] Like the five-day stock of Cheerios on the store shelf, an inventory of landfills is all that is economically necessary, not ready-and-waiting landfills for the next one hundred years.

The question could arise, however, whether landfills are being built fast enough to replace the ones that close down. To begin to address this issue, we should note that the “landfill problem” exists only in certain parts of the United States, and not in the country as a whole. For instance, Wiseman estimated that at the current rate of solid waste generation, the nation’s solid waste for the next 500 years could be buried in a single landfill 100 yards deep, 20 miles to a side.[18] In almost every state, there is no physical or environmental constraint on the building of sanitary landfills. In New York state, a study found 200 square miles of land capable of environmentally safe landfills.[19] Less than 10 percent of that area is needed to serve the entire state for the next century.[20] If there is an impediment to siting new landfills the cause cannot be physical but instead political. Specifically, the NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) problem has kept many jurisdictions from siting new landfills. In addition, some states with lower landfilling costs have tried to ban the importation of other states’ refuse.[21]

Despite the “crises” in landfilling for certain areas of the United States (most notably the Northeast and Florida), there is reason for hope. In the long run, environmentally safe, private landfill space may open up to meet areas facing high tipping fees (the per-ton charges at landfills for garbage trucks to leave their load of refuse). For example, Alexander recounts how the tipping fees in the Northeast began to skyrocket in the late 1980s because of a rash of landfill closures by state officials. By the summer of 1992, the tipping fees began to plummet due to the competition of private landfill companies. These companies had responded to the sharp increase in tipping fees by buying the land and permits needed for new landfills.[22]


The crisis mentality has distorted judgment of waste disposal. The notion that modern America is especially wasteful is demonstrably wrong, both in terms of the last decades as well as the last 100 years. The idea that our landfills are literally “running out” is even less credible. If in the next century major portions of the United States really need to export their refuse to other states, a “gold mine” for refuse burial does exist: South Dakota. This state is geologically, economically, and politically almost ideal for massive municipal solid waste management. much of the western portion of the state consists of cretaceous shales, much of the land is unsuitable for anything except grazing, and the area is in general sparsely populated (hence unlikely to suffer a lot of NIMBY resistance).[23] Should such an alternative become necessary, the most efficient form of transportation would probably be by rail—which is already one of the cheapest forms of waste transport.[24]

So, in the matter of a few years, any “shortage” of landfills (as reflected in higher tipping fees) can bring about the opening of new landfill space. Landfill space is an economic resource, and if we consistently regard it as such we can view the present situation as analogous to the oil crisis of the 1970s.[25]

1. William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), p. 28.

2. United States Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Facing America’s Trash: What Next for Municipal Solid Waste (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1989), p. 4.

3. Judd H. Alexander, In Defense of Garbage (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993), p. 13.

4. Facing America’s Trash, p. 4, 74.

5. Rubbish!, p. 100.

6. Facing America’s Trash, p. 75.

7. Rubbish!, pp. 49, 198-191.

8. Rubbish!, p. 50.

9. In Defense of Garbage, p. 5.

10. In Defense of Garbage, p. 7. One should also take into account the qualitative difference of the waste. The burning of soft coal in the 1930s made a much more objectionable form of waste.

11. In Defense of Garbage, p. 54.

12. Rubbish!, p. 217.

13. Clarke Wiseman, “Government and Recycling: Are We Promoting Waste?,” Cato Journal (Fall 1992), 12, P. 446.

14. Lynn Scarlett, A Consumer’s Guide to Environmental Myths and Realities (Dallas: National Center for Policy Analysis, 1991), P. 8.

15. Kenneth Chilton, “Solid-Waste Policy Should Be Directed by Fundamental Principles. Not Ill-Founded Feelings” Resources Conservation and Recycling (January 1993), 8, p. 2. Facing America’s Trash, p. 281.

16. “Government and Recycling,” p. 446.

17. National Solid Wastes Management Association, Special Report: Landfill Capacity in the Year 2000 (Washington, D.C.- National Solid Wastes Management Association, 1989), p. 1.

18. Clark Wiseman, “Dumping: Less Wasteful than Recycling,” Wall Street Journal (July 18, 1991), P, A10.

19. Environmental Myths and Realities, p. 1.

20. In Defense of Garbage, p. 155.

21. “Fundamental Principles,” p. 9.

22. In Defense of Garbage, pp. 155—156.

23. Jay H. Lehr, “South Dakota Is the Answer, What Is the Question,” Ground Water (May/June 1991), 29, pp. 322-326.

24. American Public Works Association, Rail Transport of Solid Wastes (Chicago: American Public Works Association, 1971).

25. Iraj Zanki, “Solid Waste Management Strategics—A Question of Priorities,” Journal of Resource Management and Technology (April 1989), 17, p. 59.