A Bad Reason To Recycle

Are we really running out of landfill space?

If you’re like most Americans, you engage in a particular, politically-correct behavior week after week: You dutifully trundle out your recycle bins in the belief that you are helping to “save the planet.” You’re not completely wrong. Recycling is not, in and of itself, a pointless exercise. In some cases – aluminum is the best example – recycling actually makes economic and therefore societal sense. But, for many Americans, 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 the landfill argument is not the only logic that environmental activists use to encourage recycling. Claims that recycling preserves precious natural resources; helps to save energy; and reduces water and air pollution are also common. Like most of the claims the greens 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, 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,” situated far in the country.

Consider one state’s experience. Outside of the crowded northeastern seaboard, where landfill space and fees have increased dramatically, this example is surely representative. The majority of garbage generated in the Chicagoland area 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 in the Chicagoland metropolitan area, one in the southwest suburbs (Morris) and the other in the northern suburbs (Grayslake) 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 in Illinois over the last thirty years. In fact, it’s actually gone up according to Illinois EPA’s latest report. 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. They feature 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 also are very attractive.

Skeptics may not be moved by such examples. How many landfills can we build before we’re living in our own filth, they will ask? That is an interesting question, one that takes a fair bit of research to track down. But, working with USEPA and industry statistics, we can 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 percent 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 percent of the nation is either undeveloped land, or used to grow crops. The remaining 2.5 per cent is urban area. It 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). Still, 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. Those trees folks, in other words, are doing just fine.

But what about the landfills? Now that we have 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 percent of all the land in the nation. You could fit all of the landfills in the United States into a single, average-sized county, 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% of all land use). Plus, the life of an average landfill is about 50 years and, once closed, the land is reclaimed for other uses.

The idea that “we are running out of landfill space,” 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 mostly garbage.