Problem Worth Solving

Each year, Americans on average generate nearly 438 pounds of trash per person per day, or collectively about 251 million tons per year.  We recycle about 87 million tons of this waste, for a total recycling rate of around 34.5 percent (which is getting more expensive and less feasible in the current US-China trade environment), but the majority of the waste we produce ends up in county-run landfills across the country.  Known as municipal solid waste, this trash is composed of a variety of items that people throw away, including food waste, yard clippings, electronics, tires, furniture, and more. Counties play an important role in the collection and disposal of municipal solid waste, providing regular and efficient waste collection to keep counties safe and sanitary, while ensuring that waste is properly handled at landfills to avoid environmental damage from soil and groundwater contamination.

The current recycling rate of 34 percent is the highest it has been in the U S since the 1980s, when it was around 10 percent. Through efforts including recycling, composting and municipal solid waste incineration, we now send about 54 percent of all waste in the U S to landfills, compared to 89 percent in 1980.  Items with the highest recycling rates include lead-acid batteries (96 percent), steel cans (70.8 percent), paper (70 percent), yard waste (57 percent) and aluminum cans (54.6 percent).

Despite these efforts, each year some 135 million tons of municipal solid waste are sent to landfills in counties across the country.  Creating new landfills can be expensive. When existing sites fill up, transporting waste to landfills in other counties, or even across state lines, can be cost-prohibitive. Additionally, landfills are the third-largest human-generated source of methane emissions in the US, which can be toxic to the local environment and can reduce air quality.

Counties have turned to alternative methods of municipal solid waste disposal and handling to avoid sending unnecessary waste to their landfills and to find value/added benefits from landfill waste. Methods such as landfill gas-to-energy and waste-to-energy allow counties to generate renewable heat and electricity from previously unused sources. These methods can allow counties to generate new streams of revenue through the sale of electricity and captured methane, lower their energy costs, reduce their emissions, improve local air quality, and strengthen public-private utility partnerships.