In less than four years, San Francisco plans to stop sending any trash to landfills. Oakland has the same goal; Seattle, L.A., New York, and a few other cities hope to follow. A recent map shows how far the rest of the country will have to come to catch up. There are 2,000 active landfills in the country, and the average American throws out 4.4 pounds of trash a day.
In a series of maps, the electricity company SaveOn Energy shows the extent and history of our garbage problem. The first "sanitary" landfill—now a Superfund site—was built in Fresno, California, in 1937. (Previously, most trash was either burned or buried on the edges of towns in dumps.) More modern landfills quickly followed.
On the map, green dots denote dumps that have been closed (though the dots are not to scale), such as Freshkills on Staten Island, which once took in 29,000 tons of trash every day. By the time it closed, the mounds on the site made up an estimated 150 million tons of garbage. Now it's a grassland park, home to endangered and threatened species of birds. New York City, which currently sends trash elsewhere, is working to reach a zero waste goal by 2030.
Another map shows which states have the most trash buried in landfills per resident. It doesn't mean that people living in Ohio or Pennsylvania are necessarily more wasteful. Both states are places where New York City, for example, currently exports its own trash.
A third map shows which states produce the most landfill gas—methane created when organic waste such as food starts breaking down. Because methane is 23 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, landfills are a serious global warming problem. The map, based on EPA data, may underestimate the problem. A Yale study in 2015 suggested that Americans are throwing out twice as much as the EPA estimates.
Much of that waste could easily be recycled or eliminated, even without better municipal systems. Americans are now throwing out around three times more food than we did in the 1960s. Plastic water bottles, easily recyclable in most places (and which arguably don't need to exist at all) are still only about 30% recycled. The overall recycling rate is also just little over 30%. In Taiwan, it's 55%. In Austria, it's 63%.
And in San Francisco, 80% of trash is diverted from the landfill. There's hope for the rest of the map.
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Correction: This article's headline used to imply—to very literal people—that the dots on the map showed the actual area of the landfills, not just their location.