(Bloomberg) — As U.S. cities struggle to rein in garbage while propping up pricey recycling efforts, more companies are profiting from America’s growing waste problem and leaving local communities to face the environmental consequences.
At 4.9 pounds of trash per person, per day, the U.S. is the most wasteful country on the planet. Of the 292.4 million tons of refuse Americans generated in 2018, half was buried in landfills while another 32% was recycled or composted, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The rest was burned (the preferred term being “combusted”) to generate electricity.
Before 1970, the U.S. dealt with its trash by dumping it in open pits. But in 1976, waste management fundamentally changed, thanks to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. That law created disposal standards for solid and hazardous waste, bolstered recycling programs and mandated landfills install better protection against seepage into the surrounding environment.
Over the past three decades, the rate of U.S. recycling and composting has more than doubled. Combusting has become a key (yet hardly climate friendly) waste management method. During that same period, however, the number of available landfills shrunk by about 74%, according to Stifel Financial Corp. analyst Michael Hoffman. Amid growing costs to operate, maintain, and expand local landfills, waste management shifted away from small municipal dumps to large, privately-controlled regional sites.
Private companies now own more than half of the 1,280 remaining U.S. landfills, Hoffman said, effectively controlling 75% of all garbage disposed in the U.S. Meanwhile, of the remaining 580 landfills owned by municipalities, 300 will close over the next decade as they reach capacity.
But waste generation isn’t slowing down. And as the overall number of landfills shrinks, those still operating will continue to balloon in size, creating more environmental stress for neighboring communities.
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