Why Not Throw It Away?

Why Landfills are Expensive

The U.S. is facing two problems of great consequence: (1) There are decreasing locations for landfills and (2) increasing costs of meeting environmental regulations for landfills. The reason for decreasing potential sites is clear: sites must meet legal restrictions combined with the fact that no one wants a landfill in their backyard. The increasing costs of landfills are explained by the steps required to run a safe and legal landfill.

At a modern landfill, garbage is spread in layers within lined pits and compacted by large bulldozers. At the end of each day fresh materials are covered with a layer of soil to discourage odors, rodents and birds. Once a portion of the landfill is full, it is covered with an impermeable liner and topsoil and planted with grasses to control erosion. Modern landfills also have systems for venting methane gas that is generated as organic materials in the landfill decay in the absence of oxygen. Other systems collect and treat leachate that is formed as water seeps through the garbage heap. Still more systems monitor groundwater for potential contamination. These systems are required by law to preserve the quality of the environment and prevent local health problems and land contamination.

What We Are Throwing Away

Ninety percent of solid waste in the U.S. was deposited in landfills in the mid-1980s.

U.S.A. Statistics generated by the Environmental Defense Fund were reported in the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission Master Composter Training Manual as follows:

  • Every Sunday, more than 500,000 trees are used to produce the 88% of newspapers that are never recycled.
  • We throw away enough office and writing paper annually to build a wall twelve feet high stretching from Los Angeles to New York City.
  • Americans go through 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, only a small percentage of which are now recycled.
  • Every year we dispose of 24 million tons of leaves and grass clippings, which could be composted to conserve landfill space.
  • We throw away enough iron and steel to continuously supply all of the nation's automarkets.
  • American consumers and industries throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial airfleet every three months.
In Texas in 1991, our solid waste was made up of 41.1% paper, 14.7% Yard Trimmings, 10.1% Food Scraps, 8.3% Plastic, 7.9% Metal, 4.8% Glass, and 13.1% Other.

While I don't have statistics for every country, the evidence is that the problem is widespread in developed countries. Recycling Council of Ontario keeps their recycled tonnage statistics on their home page. Actual statistics on material sent to landfills is expensive to collect, so if you are looking for current statistics, you might have better luck searching for numbers like these on what has been recycled or what has been composted by large operations.

How Much We Are Throwing Away

In 1989, Americans disposed of 3.5 pounds of solid waste per person per day. In 1991, Texas disposed of 6.2 pounds per person per day. For comparison, France, Italy, and West Germany maintain a standard of living as high or higher than the U.S. and their trash per person is about half of what ours is.

What We Can Do

Actions we take to resolve this problem can be summed up in the phrase "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle".

Reduce includes reducing the amount of total waste by steps such as buying only the amount you need, persuading manufacturers to reduce the amount of packaging they use. It also includes steps such as mowing your lawn with a mulching mower and leaving the clippings on the grass. "Waste" is never generated.

Reuse means finding alternate uses for trash rather than disposal. Share unused portions with neighbors or charities. Donate books to the library, give old clothing to charity, etc.

Recycle if you can't Reuse. Recycling takes trash and processes it in some way to make a useful product. Composting falls into this category. Glass, plastics, paper, steel, and cardboard are other materials that may be recycled. The added benefit of compost is that it can be done in your own backyard.

Reduction is the most desirable option, reuse is the second choice, recycling is third, and sending something to the landfill should be a last resort. To clarify these terms with an example:

I have been working with computers for years. For a long time I felt more comfortable printing work to review it, rather than reviewing text online. I disposed of this paper by throwing it in the trash bin to be sent to the landfill. In 1981, that was the only local option I knew about.

Later in the 80's and early 90's, companies started providing separate receptacles for paper to be recycled. This was a better option than going to the landfill.

People became more aware that using paper had an effect on the environment. I started saving paper when I was through with it, and sent it back through the printer to print on the back side. This is reuse which is much better than recycling because no or little energy is expended to get further use from the article. After both sides were printed, the paper was recycled. It seemed as though I were doing all I could do. But I wasn't.

The ultimate step is to reduce the amount of paper used. To some extent, reusing the paper in the previous step probably accomplished this. However, to make a major impact, I had to learn to do things in a different way. I had to review information and documents on-line ONLY, in other words, avoid printing documents out at all. This is difficult for those of us who grew up without computers, especially when you are old enough to remember when "they couldn't put it in print if it wasn't true". It is difficult to trust on-line agreements and transactions, but it is necessary.

In Texas, 14% of trash going to landfills is yard waste. In some areas during the summer months, that figure goes up to 50%. Food wastes are 10.1%. Because yard and food wastes are such a large portion of solid waste going to landfills, widespread composting would make a significant impact on landfill space required.

Online Stores
Compost Tea Brewer
Build a brewer with a bucket and less than $15 worth of components, and make aerated compost tea.
Composting the Holidays
Compost fall leaves, hay bales, holly wreaths, pine trees, etc. Compost pumpkins (food waste) in a compost pile.



  1. What is Compost?
  2. ** Why Not Throw It Away? **
  3. Benefits of Healthy Soil

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