Bleak reports and doomsday-scenario projections are commonplace when it comes
to energy and the environment: The air is getting dirtier. Our rivers are more
contaminated. Were running out of fossil fuels. Unless we cut back on
energy use, well run out of energy. The same holds true for solid waste
disposal, which, like other forms of waste, increases with increased energy
consumption. So do we have sufficient space to dispose of our solid waste? More
than three-quarters (76.7 percent) of survey respondents believe that the United
States is running out of space for its garbage and that, unless more people
start recycling, we will no longer have sufficient space for waste disposal.
The reality is quite different.
According to the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Solid
Waste, nationwide landfill capacity "does not appear
to be a problem." According to the United States
Forest Service (USFS), forest area has been "relatively
stable" for the past hundred years, even while
the U.S. population has nearly tripled.
The number of operating landfills in the U.S. has declined
precipitously over the last two decades, falling from 7,924
in 1988 to 1,754 in 2007though barely at all since 2002,
when there were 1,767 landfills. However, average landfill
size has increased, and, according to the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agencys Office of Solid Waste, nationwide
landfill capacity does not appear to be a problem.
If there is any threat that might exist to U.S. landfill capacity, it doesnt
stem from a lack of adequate landfill space or because we dont recycle
enoughAmericans recycled one-third of the trash generated in the U.S.
in 2007but rather from regulations that close
off suitable areas for solid waste disposal. The
Environmental Literacy Council points out that building landfills is an
expensive and time-consuming process, primarily due to community opposition
(the NIMBY syndrome: Not In My Backyard) and regulations requiring increasingly
sophisticated engineering measures to ensure safety.
However, while some localities oppose landfills, manyparticularly rural
areaswelcome landfills because of the revenues that they generate for
the U.S. currently has ample landfill capacity, perhaps there
are legitimate reasons to oppose landfills themselves. Some
argue that they pose environmental risks to surrounding areas
and leak dangerous toxins. Others, understandably, oppose
turning open spaces into waste-disposal sites, disrupting
natural habitats. However, with regard to environmental risk,
landfills do not pose a significant threat.
Modern landfills are designed to keep air, light, and moisture away from the
waste, in essence mummifying the waste to prevent decay and minimize the release
of liquids and gases. Small releases (if any) are vented and drained to prevent
In addition to concern about the possible environmental impact, many environmentalists
worry that clearing space for additional landfills will pose a significant risk
to our nations forests. However, U.S. forests are abundantcovering
one-third of the nations land areaand are stable or even growing.
Thus, the growth of U.S. forests lessens the impact of clearing forests for
According to the United States Forest Service (USFS), forest area has been
relatively stable for the past hundred years, even while the U.S.
population has nearly tripled. A United Nations
report reveals that, as of 2005, the U.S. had the fourth-largest forest area
(303 million hectares) of any country, while the U.S.s annual net gain
in forest area (159,000 hectares per year) from 2000 to 2005 was also the fourth-largest
of any country. USFS data reveal the stability of overall forest area in
the U.S. since the early twentieth century:
Even after the industrialization of American farmland and the rapid population
growth in the United States during the twentieth centuryalong
with the attendant rises in consumption and wasteU.S.
landfill space and forests are not in short supply.