Americans are plugging up landfills with twice as much garbage as previously believed, a new study has found. Looking at actual measurements taken from all landfill sites, rather than the estimations calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it turns out that the average American chucks 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds) of trash into the landfill each day. This revised figure has profound implications for the level of the country’s recycling rate as well as the amount of methane these sites emit.
Forming the third largest source of methane emissions in the United States, landfill sites are not to be overlooked in the fight to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Up to 35 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, methane is created as organic matter thrown in the garbage decomposes in anaerobic conditions – an absence of oxygen. While many closed landfill sites cap the buried trash and harvest the methane it produces, most active ones don’t. With the Obama administration focusing on curbing U.S. methane emissions, the study’s goal was originally to look at how efficient these methane capture systems are.
Previously, the EPA calculated how much trash was sent to landfills based on measures such as patterns of consumption and population data, but eventually in 2010 they made most municipal landfills record exactly how much they received. Using this previously unavailable data for over 1,200 individual landfills, the team of researchers from Yale University were finally able to accurately measure the amount of garbage thrown away each year. And the results aren’t particularly good.
The researchers found that while the EPA estimated that 123 million tonnes (135 million tons) were chucked out in 2012, the new data shows that this was actually 263 million tonnes (289 million tons) – over double the government estimate. If this data is indeed correct, it also suggests that Americans aren’t recycling as much as previously thought. The EPA had calculated that around 35% of all waste was recycled based on their estimates of landfill, but with the new figures this recycling rate drops to just 21%.
All this extra trash means a lot of extra methane, most of which goes unrecorded as it seeps out from the mountains of garbage and enters the atmosphere, contributing to the warming of the planet. While this is clearly not great news, it does mean that the solution is fairly simple. Rather than spending lots on high-tech methane capture systems at each landfill, all it requires is that rather than throwing organic matter away, people start composting. If done correctly, ensuring a decent supply of oxygen, then the methane produced is minimal.