In praise of landfills

posted: March 16, 2024

tl;dr: If you don’t like landfills, try living without them...

During the depths of the COVID-19 lockdowns and craziness, there was one key indicator I monitored to determine if civilization was going to end: would the weekly trash pickup happen? Fortunately it always did, and I celebrated each time. Sanitation workers were deemed to be essential; in fact, they are some of the most essential members of our entire society. As did my wife, who was also an essential worker, they went about their business every day while the rest of us less-essential workers were cowering at home. If the trash had stopped being picked up, anarchy and the collapse of civilization would not be far behind.

After living in Scottsdale, Arizona for more than five years, I finally visited the landfill where our trash was hauled. It’s outside of the metro area on the Salt River Pima reservation, accessible from a highway but with nothing in the immediate vicinity. It’s not a pleasant place: it smells, it’s ugly, there are scavenging birds flying around, and I had to be careful not to step on or run over a nail as I dropped off my load. And yet it is much better than any alternative.

To realize this, all you need to do is to visit a country with inadequate landfill capacity and an inadequate waste removal system. India springs to mind. I visited India late in the first decade of this century, so my impressions are dated; hopefully the situation has improved. When the trash isn’t hauled away to a landfill, it ends up wherever someone tosses it: the street, alleys, or the nearest body of water, which is sometimes the ocean. With the rise of homeless encampments in various cities in the United States, we are starting to have this problem here. The trash is not only unsightly, but it breeds disease. When it ends up in bodies of water, it can kill the aquatic life.

A large heap of trash upon which two yellow bulldozers are rearranging trash while a few birds circle overhead on a partly sunny day

Salt River Landfill east of Scottsdale, Arizona

Hamsters do a better job of managing their waste than some human beings. When my kids were little we kept some hamsters in cages. Hamsters instinctively know how to manage waste: they build a small storage area for their food, and they put their waste in a separate storage area far away from the food. When you see pictures of homeless encampments or hoarders, you often see this strategy being violated.

One dream of some environmentalists and economists is a so-called “circular economy”. In a circular economy, absolutely everything is recycled, and there would theoretically be no need for landfills. That’s great, but it would take a tremendous amount of energy to process every single discarded item back into its raw components or into something else that’s useful. I’m not sure the chemistry exists to do so, and any chemical process comes with its own set of challenges and potential waste. Recycling can and should happen for some items, but it’s not going to eliminate the need for landfills in my lifetime.

Landfills occupy a tiny fraction of the available land in the United States. They are not nice places, but they enable other places to be nice.