New Yale Study Warns of Costly Waste Problem

A new Yale study indicates that the amount of waste being dumped in America's landfills is nearly double that of official government estimates.

Researchers at Yale University found that 230 million metric tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) or trash was dumped into landfills in the United States in 2015. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had estimated that 124 million metric tons of waste were landfillled in 2015.

The Yale researchers have published the results of similar studies in the past, which have consistently shown that the EPA underestimates waste quantities.

"We estimate the cost of MSW landfill disposal in 2015 (10.7 billion U.S. dollars [USD]) and gross lost commodity value of recyclable material (1.4 billion USD)."

—Jon T. Powell and Marian R. Chertow, "Quantity, Components, and Value of Waste Materials Landfilled in the United States," Journal of Industrial Ecology.

The Yale study, published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, utilized a "bottom up" methodology that relied on three data sources: 1) the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, 2) annual waste disposal reports from seven U.S. state environmental regulatory agencies, and 3) state-wide waste characterization studies.

Using these sources, the researchers were able to more accurately "triangulate" waste measurements from 1,161 landfills and 15,169 solid waste samples collected and analyzed at 222 sites across the country (representing up to 95% of landfilled waste).

"The model provides major advances in the accuracy of estimates of just what types of waste are being created and where they end up," said Reid Lifset, Industrial Ecology Research Scientist at Yale and Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

The EPA's approach is described by the researchers as less accurate and "top down."*

Expensive and Damaging Impacts

The Yale team estimated that the waste being generated in the United States costs taxpayers nearly $11 billion per year. The costs are mainly imposed by municipalities, who are responsible for transporting and disposing of the waste.

But that's not the only financial impact. The items being disposed of in landfills have value. The Yale researchers estimate that the volume of materials entering landfills represents a loss of recyclable material valued at nearly $1.5 billion!

The study also estimated that landfill methane emissions are up to 14 percent greater than the number reported by the EPA. Methane is one of the most destructive greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. It is created by the decay of materials in landfills, as well as escaping from other sources.

Even More Textile Waste

The researchers indicate that about 4.5 percent of landfilled waste is comprised of textiles. This is about 7 percent greater than the mass estimated by the EPA in 2014.

These landfilled textiles represent a tremendous loss of resources and impose serious impacts, especially given that the textile industry itself is one of the most polluting on the planet. Because textiles are produced at such a great environmental cost, it is vital that they are diverted from needless disposal and that they are reused for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, consumers are mostly unaware of how serious a problem textile waste represents, and have few options where they can drop off their unwanted clothing.

Planet Aid strives to provide a convenient alternative to the trash bin for clothes and shoes. To find out if there is a bin near you, click here.

*The EPA uses a materials flow methodology, which relies on a mass balance approach and little facility-measured data. They use information gathered from industry associations, businesses, and government agencies, supplemented by waste characterizations and reports.