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A Whole Lot of Garbage

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

When you toss out your trash each day, you probably don't give it much thought. The furthest consideration Americans give their garbage is ensuring that it gets picked up on garbage day.

But the truth is, America has a trash problem. The average American produces 1,704 pounds of garbage per year, which is around three times the global average. The EPA reported that total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018 was around 292.4 million tons (around 0.85 tons per capita), with approximately 69 million tons being recycled, 25 million tons composted, and 17.7 million tons being used for other food-related purposes. Another 35 million tons of MSW are combusted for energy recover, but with these numbers, that still leaves 50 percent of American waste going straight to the landfill.

In a time when combating climate change is increasingly imperative, landfills pose a big problem. Municipal solid waste is among the top three factors responsible for methane emissions in the United States, as well as a large contributor to carbon emissions and volatile organic compounds. While much climate discourse talks only of the harms of carbon dioxide, methane is 84 times more potent when driving planetary warming. And so, you can see how "landfill gas" is creating a sticky situation.

What's more, landfills stand as a major offender in the fight for environmental justice. In the United States, race is the number one predictor of whether someone lives near a hazardous waste site, with low socioeconomic status also pointing to the likelihood of landfill siting. Living near these sites can be a nuisance at best, and at worst cause severe illness from air and water pollution.

Landfills in the U.S.

Despite these problems, it does not seem like we are running out of landfill space or halting siting anytime soon. In 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which sought to improve landfills by requiring that they be lined with plastic or clay. Though improvements, these requirements drove up the price of landfill design and operation; this meant that smaller community landfills closed, and private companies opened larger, "mega-landfills" with excessive capacity and more efficient operations.

Now, areas with more funding and space have become more concentrated with landfills than others, and states with less landfill sites are shipping their refuse across county and state lines. Landfill capacity is very specific to locale and region. Several states will very soon run out of landfill space, while others have up to 20 more years; 22 more states have decades left before they run out of sites. Experts estimate around 60 more years of capacity remaining at current facilities.

Currently, the top U.S. state for buried trash per capita is Michigan, which had 62.4 tons of "waste in place" per capita as of 2019. Indiana leads the nation in annual "landfill waste acceptance rates," accepting 2.35 tons per year, per resident. Connecticut holds the least buried trash per person, as well as the smallest volume of new trash acceptance. Almost all of Connecticut's landfills have closed, which ultimately results in trash export.

How Does North Carolina Stack Up?

In the past few decades, North Carolina's MSW production per capita has fluctuated—from 1.08 tons per capita in Fiscal Year (FY) 1990-91, to 0.94 tons per capita in FY, and back up to 1.36 tons per capita in FY 2018-19. For the FY 2019-20, the state sat above the national average at 1.32 tons per capita. The state additionally received more than 300,000 tons (including MSW and Construction/Demolition Debris) of waste imported from South Carolina and Virginia, and exported 1.1 million tons to Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

North Carolina reports its remaining landfill capacity as "sufficient," with approximately 25.7 years of waste disposal remaining at its 42 landfills (should landfill use remain steady). All regions have access to adequate disposal capacity, though capacity is not uniformly available. The state has many rural areas, which are thus subjected to limited disposal options as well as higher disposal costs and potential service disruptions. And where underserved areas do have landfill options, communities with more people of color (PoC) and individuals with low wealth are much more likely to live closest to the waste sites; the odds are nearly three times greater that a MSW site will be located in a census block where more than 50 percent of residents are PoC.

We are stuck with a dilemma—though waste has decreased nationally over the years, North Carolina's production has been fluctuating. The fact is, we currently continue to need more landfill capacity, which does not bode well for environmental justice progress or combating climate change-driving pollution. And as some areas and states run out of sites, transportation to varying locations will ramp up, driving further emissions, and so on. So, what can we do to mitigate these issues, and what is currently happening in our state?

The Department of Environmental Quality's annual Division of Waste Management report notes that source reduction and/or local reuse programs can be a cost-effective means of helping citizens reduce the waste they discard. Currently, only a minority of local governments utilize these programs, and waste prevention does not seem to currently be a high priority. The numbers are as follows: 37 backyard composting programs, 63 source reduction programs, and 36 public reuse programs—for a grand total of 87 programs in FY 2019-20. This is a decline from previous years, though general trends over the past decade show improved program performance. The per capita recycling rate, for example, has increased at an average rate of 1.6 percent since FY 2010-11; there are several public recycling programs across the state, although some smaller communities have recently suspended due to costs and COVID-19.

Overall, there several challenges remaining to overcome struggles with MSW, but there are also increasing options available to combat these issues. In North Carolina, the primary problems appear to be cost and public interest. Hopefully, as our state pursues increasingly aggressive endeavors toward environmentally sustainable practices and a cleaner, more just economy, we will be able to drive progress in the space of landfills and waste.

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