The Social Impact of Waste
Americans generate trash at a rate of 4.9 pounds per person per day. Multiplied by 330 million, that is a lot of trash. All of that trash has to go somewhere. For most of us, putting trash to the curb is the end of the story.
Although recycling and sustainability efforts have made significant strides in recent years, roughly 50% of the almost 300 million tons of waste material generated each year in the United States still gets shipped to one of the country's 3,000 landfills. A truck comes to carry it away, and then it is out of sight and out of mind. But for the people living in the shadow of a landfill, that is only the beginning of the story.
For people living near a landfill, waste is a part of daily life. The sight of towering garbage, the sound of compactors and excavators, the smell of rotting waste, the negative impact on property values, and the detrimental effects on public health combine into a terrifying impact. A landfill is a constant, overpowering presence that translates into stunted lives and missed opportunities.
While every state in the nation has landfills, the vast majority are in the South, Midwest, and the West of America—the opposite of where the country's population is concentrated. Big cities are shipping their problems to the country, as waste generated in large population centers gets trucked to less densely populated areas to be buried.
There is also an unmistakable race issue at play. Recent studies have shown that over a 30-year period, hazardous waste facilities have been placed predominantly in areas populated by black and brown people and especially those people with lower incomes.
In the more than $1.61trillion waste industry, billions of dollars each year are spent to transfer waste from one part of the country to another, with most of that money changing hands between large municipalities and the companies that own landfills. The people who live near this trash do not see a dime. They see mountains of trash, often towering over other nearby structures. Not to mention the smell that some have called "Sickly sweet. Acrid. Stomach-churning, depending on what the mix of the day is." Residing near a landfill is simply not pleasant. Flies, smoke, and smells are often cited as detriments to life near a landfill.
Residents living near landfills also see their property values plummet by over 12% near a high-volume landfill and around 2.7% for lower volume landfills. This means that dumps are not only importing other people's problems but directly impacting the quality of life of those around them. Lower property values mean lower tax revenues, stunting investment in roads, schools, and municipal improvements.
None of this mentions the legitimate health concerns caused or exacerbated by living in proximity to a landfill. A recent study showed that 34% of people living near a landfill experienced breathing difficulty from the fumes and dust kicked up on the site. Residents near a landfill also reported more frequent illnesses than those residing elsewhere, including cancer, congenital disabilities, low birth weight, genetic mutations, asthma, cuts, stomach pain, reoccurring flu, cholera, malaria, cough, skin irritation, and tuberculosis. Living near landfills literally makes people sick.
Landfills also negatively impact the environment. Landfills produce leachate and gas emissions, which enter the environment around the landfill, poisoning the groundwater and air. Although landfills must have plastic or clay liners, these liners often have leaks. Leachate is a liquid produced by the waste in landfills that leaks out of the landfill liners, contaminating groundwater and polluting nearby water sources.
The most immediate hazard of leachate is its relatively high ammonia content. This ammonia turns to nitrate when introduced into the environment, leading to increased plant life and algae growth, which can cause "eutrophication," or a lack of oxygen. Eutrophication creates "dead zones" where animals cannot survive due to a lack of oxygen. Leachate destroys local wildlife.
Leachate can also contain mercury and other harmful toxins, contributing to health risks for humans living nearby. One study concluded a 12% increased risk of congenital disabilities in children born to families living within a mile of landfills, mainly due to leachate.
Landfills also contribute to the release of harmful greenhouse gases, accounting for 20% of global methane emissions. As the organic matter contained in waste material decomposes, it releases methane gas. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other gases produced by landfills can contribute to local smog and air pollution, further impacting public health.
The bottom line is that waste does not disappear; it goes to landfills in predominantly poorer areas where underprivileged people must live with the consequences. It affects our air and water, impacts our health, lowers our property values, and diminishes our investments in infrastructure and schools. Landfills also pollute the soil for hundreds of years.
The industry is trying to make improvements. While it is true that most landfills have not changed since legislation regarding layers and thickness of linings was passed in the 1980s, modern landfills are a vast improvement over the simple open pits used in the past. Modern "sanitary" landfills are designed to separate waste into "cells," channel escaping gas into gas collection systems, and prevent excess runoff or leachate.
Unfortunately, no amount of engineering has yet produced a completely safe landfill. The only equitable, long-term solution is to end waste.
At Rubicon, we are using data-driven decision making and our technology products to help customers move away from the landfill model at scale. Even though we send things to landfills as well, we can use data to understand where things are moving to make long term decisions and reshape and re-stack the way the industry feels today.
Moving toward circular economies with more sustainable waste management will notably increase livability for those where waste gets dumped. Further still, it will increase capital investments and provide better outcomes for society.