IS THERE A LANDFILL CRISIS?
In the 1980s, concern about running out of landfill space drove
the development of community recycling systems. Now many voices
are claiming there is no landfill crisis and accuse recycling of
being an expensive alternative that municipalities cannot afford.
But these arguments rely on only selective parts of the picture.
When the landfill issue is analyzed comprehensively, the environmental
- and even economic - points are still crucial and valid:
- Even state-of-the-art landfills cannot prevent groundwater contamination
and pollution problems forever. At best, they only postpone it
to haunt later generations.
- The mix created within a landfill has many hazardous components.
Indeed, nearly a quarter of the sites slated for priority clean-up
on the Superfund National Priority List are municipal solid waste
- Some of the most egregious landfills, including Staten Island's
"Fresh Kills" Landfill - the largest human-made object on Earth
- are close to closing and there are no locations nearby for replacement.
While some states are welcoming the income generated by other
communities' garbage being shipped in to their landfills, many
are closing their borders to "foreign" trash. New landfills continue
to be hard to site.
- Incinerators waste energy compared to recycling. They also waste
resources, pollute the air, and concentrate toxics which then
must be landfilled.
- Landfills and incinerators are usually heavily subsidized by
tax dollars. Recycling, in contrast, has been expected to pay
its own way.
- The cost necessary for safe and proper long-term maintenance
has not been budgeted or allocated to many of the landfills that
are closing. The cost will be far greater than communities have
- When costs are fairly compared between the solid waste management
methods, a well-run recycling program comes out to be cost-competitive.
In fact, when hidden factors are considered, such as avoided costs
and the subsidies given to landfilling and burning, recycling
often turns out to be the least expensive option.
THE FOCUS IS RESOURCES
But the greatest reason why landfills and incinerators are a problem
is that they trash resources.
Printing and writing paper dumped into a landfill could have been
recycled up to a dozen more times, saving trees, water and energy
and reducing pollution each time. Incinerators are even more wasteful
than landfills, even though many are touted as energy-producers.
They generally require a dedicated trash source, such as the lion's
share of a municipality's garbage, for prime operation, discouraging
source reduction and recycling. Yet in many cases, particularly
paper, incinerators use more energy to burn the materials than they
In 1994, the U.S. generated 209 million tons of municipal solid
waste (MSW), up from 196 million tons in 1990 (and 88 million tons
The good news is that the percentage of materials recovered through
recycling and composting increased to 24% (49 million tons), from
17% in 1990. The bad news is that, despite improved recycling rates,
the actual tonnage disposed in landfills is still increasing because
of increased consumption rates. The U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) expects annual MSW generation to increase to 223 million
tons in 2000 and 262 million tons in 2010. Of the total amount of
materials recovered from MSW, the paper industry led by recycling
more than half, nearly 29 million tons. Nearly 40% of MSW (81.3
million tons) is paper and paperboard. Seven percent (14.6 million
tons) is wood.
Conserving primary resources such as trees is not the only resource
opportunity lost to landfills and incinerators. Recycling materials
rather than trashing them saves water and energy in the production
system, as well as reduces air, water, and land pollution. According
to EPA, preliminary research even indicates that source reduction
and recycling of MSW also have significant potential to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions and mitigate climate change.
INCREASING THE RECYCLING GOAL
This is why, in June 1996, EPA announced that, having met its national
goal of 25% recycling of municipal solid waste, it is considering
a new national recycling goal of 35% by the year 2005. However,
even EPA acknowledges that this will only slightly decrease, by
about 4 million tons, the amount of material that is landfilled
and incinerated annually, because of the continually-increasing
amount of materials discarded.
Many recycling experts, including the National Recycling Coalition,
the California Resource Recovery Association, the Institute for
Local Self-Reliance (which has done groundbreaking work on recycling
and economics), and Worldwatch Institute, call instead for a 50%
recycling rate. This rate is realistic and achievable, they maintain,
when taking into account the reductions in material possible through
source reduction, composting of food scraps and yard trimmings,
recycling of construction and demolition debris, and continually
increasing recycling rates for many materials.
When the focus more appropriately shifts to sounder management
of resources, recycling and source reduction (preventing waste from
even being produced) are obviously critical. This more environmentally
accurate focus makes tree-free pulps and chlorine-free paper obvious
choices, as well, in refining and recreating industrial production
systems that are environmentally sustainable over future generations.
They are all part of rethinking how to better conserve resources
and prevent or reduce pollution.
There are four main categories of paper: high grade printing and
writing paper, newsprint, corrugated/paperboard (including packaging)
and tissue/towel products. The largest category (by production)
is corrugated/paperboard, which amounts to about half of all paper
produced. The next largest category is printing and writing paper,
which amounts to nearly 30% of total paper production. The balance
is split between tissue (7%), newsprint (8%) and packaging papers
The overall recycled content in each category varies, with tissue
and towel currently containing the highest percentage of recycled
material (well over 50%), and printing and writing paper the lowest
(about 10%, little of it postconsumer). This is particularly significant
because the vast majority of printing and writing paper is discarded
within six months to a year after production.
The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) reports that nearly
12 million tons of printing and writing paper were recovered in
1995, out of nearly 29 million tons consumed, for a recovery rate
of 41%. However, the recovered high grade paper is used for many
other recycled grades, including tissue and paperboard, and nearly
20% is exported. After accounting for paper that was probably saved
(e.g., filed or not yet used), this means that approximately 14
million tons of fine papers were left in landfills, nearly 9% of
the materials in landfills and almost a third of the paper and paper
Printing and writing paper can be turned into virtually any grade
of paper, but it can accept very little fiber from other paper categories
into its own production. Therefore, it is most resource-efficient
to use high grade scrap paper in printing and writing paper, where
the fibers can be reused many times. (In contrast, if printing and
writing scrap is turned into tissue and towel, it will not be recycled
a second time. If it is turned into other grades of paper, such
as newsprint or corrugated, it cannot be remade back into printing
and writing paper. Newsprint and corrugated fibers have far fewer
"lives" than fibers made into printing and writing paper.)
Increasing recycled content in printing and writing papers is particularly
important, since it leaves the most room for improvement. The U.S.
paper disposal rate has not gone down appreciably despite increased
recovery rates. Instead, the increased recycling is just barely
keeping up with the increase in demand (and therefore increase in
amount disposed) for more and more paper.
When recovered paper is collected for recycling, it is baled with
similar kinds of paper and then shipped to a paper mill that can
deink it or otherwise recycle it. Nearly a quarter of the recovered
paper in the U.S. is shipped to Mexico, Canada, Asia and Europe
rather than used in domestic mills. In 1994-1995, prices for recovered
paper were high because of export demand, hoarding by mills worried
about ever-escalating prices, and the introduction of several new
high grade deinking mills. While this caused havoc for paper mills
and their customers (all paper prices were high, but recycled prices
were even higher), it was welcome news to municipal collection systems,
many of which turned their recycling systems into cash cows, at
least for the short-term.