The Origins of the Landfill Crisis and the Emergence of Recycling

How and why the landfill crisis "happened" and what the reality of landfill capacity says about recycling is both a fascinating story and a trash conundrum.

It has been 40 years since the modern recycling movement took root in America. What once had been at best an afterthought (think of old-fashioned scrap or paper drives) today is front-of-mind. Partly this is due to government mandates and regulations. But government mandates and regulates many activities that don’t enjoy the huge level of support and participation rates that recycling does. In the US, far more people recycle than vote. It is almost universally considered “good.” And nearly every US institution (business, government, schools) lauds recycling as a critical environmental activity and trumpets their own recycling efforts. What made recycling so prominent was the explosion in the public consciousness of the “landfill crisis” in the 1980s. How and why the landfill crisis “happened” and what the reality of landfill capacity says about recycling is both a fascinating story and a trash conundrum. Designating a place to dump waste is almost as old as civilization. Landfills have been found as far back as 5000 years ago. We know a municipal landfill operated outside of Athens at the time of Plato, around 2500 years ago. It was specifically cited outside the city for obvious “quality of life” reasons. In the US, the current system of waste disposal emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With populations rising and more people living in urban areas, waste collection and disposal became a municipal responsibility. Landfills were sited outside of commercial and residential areas. In many cases wetlands were used at landfills; for example, Boston’s Back Bay area was once a landfill area. By the middle of the last century, there were upwards of 20,000 locations for the disposal of solid waste in the US. Some, like Fresh Kills in New York, took in over 3,000 tons of waste per day; most of the others were much smaller dumps with far less capacity. Concerns about waste began to emerge in the 1960s. Anti-litter campaigns were launched (“every litter bit hurts”). Ideas to reduce the volume of packaging materials were discussed. But it took the passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976 to start the chain of events that created today’s recycling movement. The RCRA empowered the EPA to regulate both hazardous and non-hazardous waste (“municipal solid waste” or MSW). Most of the RCRA concerned the first -- it led to the creation of hundreds of Superfund sites: highly polluted locations (usually old mining, industrial or military sites) with high concentrations of hazardous materials requiring long-term mitigation. The RCRA also established regulations governing the collection, storage and disposal of MSW. It created stringent rules about how waste was landfilled. This covered issues of how materials are prevented from leaching into the soil and how gasses such as methane were to be handled.

The result was the creation of a sanitary landfill and the closure of thousands of old-style dumps. The direct environmental impact of closing thousands of dumps and replacing them with a far fewer high-tech, lined, secure and vented sanitary landfills was dramatic. The main problems created by dumps – leachate polluting water – were widely mitigated. But an unintended consequence was the creation of the recycling revolution.

The impetus was the “landfill crisis.” Experts were suddenly predicting we were running out of landfill space. Even serious economists were caught up in this frenzy: “The . . . EPA has estimated that 80 percent of existing landfills will reach capacity and shut down in the next 20 years. . . . These closures coupled with the decline in the rate . . . new landfills are being opened are responsible for the crisis in landfill space, or more precisely a scarcity of such space.” There was much media support for this crisis. For example, the nation was captivated (and horrified) by the saga of the Mobro garbage barge moving up and down the Atlantic seaboard, unable to dock and dispose of the MSW it carried. The cause was the fear the barge held illegal hazardous waste. But when the story appeared, this fact was left out and it seemed the Mobro was a victim of diminishing landfill space With the crisis in the air, politicians moved swiftly. Recycling mandates were ultimately passed in 44 states. Curbside collection of recyclables became common sights in suburbs. Waste haulers routinely offer customers recycling services and recycling became accepted as an undeniable positive benefit for the environment. This recital from California’s foundational recycling law, AB 939 passed in 1989, clearly illustrates that recycling regulations were driven by the belief there was a landfill crisis: The Legislature hereby finds and declares, as follows:

(a) While California will exhaust most of its remaining landfill space by the mid-1990’s, there presently is no coherent state policy to ensure that the state’s solid waste is managed in an effective and environmentally sound manner for the remainder of the 20th century and beyond. (b) The amount of solid waste generated in the state coupled with diminishing landfill space and potential adverse environmental impacts from landfilling constitutes an urgent need for state and local agencies to enact an aggressive new integrated waste management program. From the economist’s perspective, none of these government policies would have been necessary had the crisis been real. As landfill capacity declined, the supply curve would “move left” raising prices and directing households and firms − without government encouragement − to recycle. But the landfill crisis was a myth grounded in a counting error. Thanks to the RCRA the number of landfills declined from 20,000 in the early 1970s to only 2,000 by 1998. But most that closed were small, unable to meet stringent environmental standards. The remaining operations are now "mega" -landfills, with enormous capacity operated under the tightest environmental regimen. Today, although the absolute number of disposal sites is down by 90%+ since the 1980s, we have sufficient capacity to meet our disposal needs. Tipping fees (price to dispose of materials at a landfill) reflect this. The EPA has tracked these since the 1980s and found after a spike nationwide in tipping fees in the early 1980s, fees rose slightly from mid-80s to the mid-90s, then declined slowly (mid-90s – early 2000s) before beginning a slow period of increase. But none of these trends reflect significant problems with landfill capacity.

Regarding tipping fees, in 2015 CalRecycle studied prices and found, ironically, that tipping fees were too low, reflecting the more than adequate availability of landfill. Three quotes from the Study (Landfill Tipping Fees in California, 2015) bear repeating. · California has lower landfill tipping fees than would be expected given its percentage of waste landfilled. · California’s low landfill tipping fees likely present the lowest cost option for the disposition of most of the materials that make up MSW. · California’s low landfill tipping fees do little to drive materials to higher and better uses and may make it more difficult to reach the 75 percent statewide recycling goal by 2020. Unlike the European Union, California has not pursued policy directives that increase tipping fees or landfill taxes to disincentivize landfilling.

Low landfill tipping fees are a function of private firms bringing sufficient capacity to market. If there were a shortage of capacity, prices would go up.

What’s most interesting about the study, is it echoes the original justification for recycling, but in an ironic way. In California’s 1989 recycling law, we needed to recycle because landfill was becoming scarcer, which is why the State established a 75% recycling goal. But as this pricing study showed, the opposite happened. Prices are low, which means there is sufficient capacity. The result is these low prices are now undermining recycling.

The more interesting question is this. If recycling was driven by the “landfill crisis” and the desire to conserve landfill space and if – in reality – there is no landfill crisis, then is recycling a good thing? The CalRecycle study sees the availability of landfill space – and its low price – as a deterrent to recycling. Is this another way of saying we don’t need to recycle because we have plenty of landfill space? Does it deserve all the support it currently has both from the government and the public at large? We will look at this question shortly.

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