Recycling is Bad for the Earth

on Sunday, April 3, 2011

If we took all the trash that the United States currently creates and put it into one giant landfill for the next 1,000 years, packing trash using current technology 100 yards deep, how big would the landfill be?

Thirty miles wide and thirty miles long. For all the trash we produce for 1,000 years! I actually couldn't believe this statistic, so I went and looked up trash compaction and annual US trash production rates, and my calculations showed that we could make it for 1,500 years with a 30x30 landfill.

And we're still using fairly low-tech compactors -- which are just giant trucks rolling around on the trash to smash it down. Trash leaves homes at 300-500 lbs per cubic yard, and landfills turn that into 1,200-1,700 lbs/cubic yard. Future compactors could use serious compaction to achieve much higher densities.

Modern landfills are lined very well to avoid contaminating groundwater, and we are actually harvesting the methane gas that rises off the trash to use as fuel. Think of them as a renewable energy source.

Just about the only thing that saves resources when recycled is aluminum. Eventually we'll run out of oil, so let's recycle plastics too. But trees are grown on farms like soy or corn, and glass is made with sand. Why are we so worried about throwing things away?

As countries become richer population growth generally slows as the need for lots of manual labor decreases. So trash production is unlikely to grow exponentially, especially as packaging and transport become lighter and more efficient. Additionally, compaction technology continues to improve, and who cares if the pile is 35 miles across? We're talking a tiny tiny tiny little piece of land here. And that land makes free fuel for us.

That's less than on 4,000th of the square footage of the US. That's like dividing your backyard into 4,000 chunks and storing all of the trash for the next 1,000 years for all the people who live there in that little square in your back yard.

Or you could take your yard and divide it into 4 million chunks, and store all of your trash for each year in that little square.

Or you could say that every 340,000 people get 1 square mile of landfill space, and will take 1,000 years to fill it.

Or you could say that the city of Fairfield would take 34,000 years to fill 1 square mile of landfill.