by Max Schulz



Manhattan Institute/Zogby Survey of Adults Question Frequencies

Manhattan Institute/Zogby Survey of Adults Question X-tabs





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. We’re running out of fossil fuels. Unless we cut back on energy use, we’ll 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 2007—though 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 Agency’s Office of Solid Waste, nationwide landfill capacity “does not appear to be a problem.”[73]

If there is any threat that might exist to U.S. landfill capacity, it doesn’t stem from a lack of adequate landfill space or because we don’t recycle enough—Americans recycled one-third of the trash generated in the U.S. in 2007[74]—but rather from regulations that close off suitable areas for solid waste disposal.[75] 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.”[76] However, while some localities oppose landfills, many—particularly rural areas—welcome landfills because of the revenues that they generate for their communities.

Though 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 environmental harm.

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 nation’s forests. However, U.S. forests are abundant[77]—covering one-third of the nation’s land area—and are stable or even growing.[78] Thus, the growth of U.S. forests lessens the impact of clearing forests for landfill space.

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.[79] 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.[80] USFS data reveal the stability of overall forest area in the U.S. since the early twentieth century:[81]

Even after the industrialization of American farmland and the rapid population growth in the United States during the twentieth century—along with the attendant rises in consumption and waste—U.S. landfill space and forests are not in short supply.

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