Are We Going to Run out of Room in Our Landfills?

wiseGEEK Writer

The topic of when we are going to run out of space in our landfills is actually a matter of some debate. The pitched battle between environmentalists and those who would build more landfills, tends to be separated by the claims that we are quickly running out of space, and that we have enough space to last a good many years. Further, those who are not concerned about space in landfills often suggest that if we run out of space, we could always build new ones, although the law often does not permit it.

Trash is collected and transported to landfills.
Trash is collected and transported to landfills.

From the environmentalists, we get the argument that building new landfills can be challenging since there is potential to expose people who are living or working in close proximity to them to dangerous chemicals. Further, some chemicals, which people dispose of improperly, may leach into the ground and affect water supply. Contamination from landfills has occurred in the past and is likely to occur again, and therefore existing ones should be maintained, and the rate at which they are filled, reduced by using less plastic, recycling, and composting.

Some landfills already are impeding on nearby water sources.
Some landfills already are impeding on nearby water sources.

From those who support the building of new landfills, argument runs that there are plenty of open spaces in which they could be built if needed. It is argued we spend too much time recycling and too much money on the sorting required to recycle items. Some claim those we have will last for at another 100 years, but we can always build new ones if they don’t last. However, environmental laws often prohibit building new landfills and people don’t want to live near them, even though most “garbage” is relatively safe. We also hear from this side that new methods of compressing and decomposing trash free up space, and that some environmentalists exaggerate the issue.

Some specific landfills will reach maximum capacity in a few years. England has problems with a number of them reaching near capacity. A few in the US state of Georgia have approximately ten years left. Some attribute a number of years to specific landfills, like 10 years, 17 years or 20. However, there are no hard figures on when all such areas will reach maximum capacity, but instead, debate about their capacity and what we should do about it.

It does make good sense to recycle when necessary, since realistically, we will ultimately run out of space in many landfills, though the precise numbers as to when are debated. While environmental laws could be changed to build new ones, recycling might put off such changes for a long period of time. It is true that there are few people who would want to live near one, should we need to build more. As with many unwanted developments such as prisons or power plants, proposed landfills run the risk of running into the "not-in-my-back-yard," or NIMBY opposition. Opponents usually argue that housing in these areas would be likely to drop in value, and some residents would not be able to afford to move elsewhere.

Studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency reveal that the average citizen produces 1,600 pounds of trash annually.
Studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency reveal that the average citizen produces 1,600 pounds of trash annually.

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Discussion Comments


I hope methane doesn't get so thick that we can't breathe. They should make the liners thicker. Does anybody know where to find how you are doing in methane production?


@parmnparsley- I find it interesting that you look at the problems with landfills in the context of economic growth theories. How do you propose that we change the way that our economy works? We cannot simply reduce consumption, because our model of prosperity is built on growth.

Globalization is real, and if we stifle growth in the means of environmental protection (as idealistic as this sounds), we slow or reverse the growth of the developing world. I am all for making the economy more efficient, but I cannot think of a way that this can be done in such a globalized world. I would be interested in any proposal you or anyone may have on shifting from a waste based economy.


@highlighter- I have taken a few courses on urban development, and what you say is true. The next generation of urban planners, environmental engineers, industrial engineers, economists, and politicians will need to figure out a way to create economic growth that does not rely on such huge waste streams. Our landfill problems stem from the notion that goods should only be made to last long enough for the next model to reach the market. In a sense, economic growth is built on waste and excess. This is what happens when you have a consumer based economy, where everything is measured by GDP or production (the production and management of waste is included in the GDP).

If we are to really solve the problem of what to do with our waste, we need to look a little farther up the industrial ladder and realize that we need to reduce the amount of waste. Not all the recycling in the world will never reduce the amount of unrecoverable goods. As you say, the linear industrial flow is not working. We need to turn that linear flow into a cycle by reusing and minimizing waste streams.


The debate over landfills and the environment goes a lot deeper than just whether or not we will run out of landfill space. It is also more complex than simply environmentalists and everyone else. The issue involves waste management professionals, those who share the water table with a landfill, engineers, recycling advocates, medical waste producers, industry, and many more.

The issue at heart is the linear nature of our consumption patterns and the fact that waste streams are often just as large if not larger than the resource streams that feed them.

Most people think that the bulk of materials that are deposited into landfills are harmless, mostly organic materials. The indisputable truth is that approximately 25 percent of the waste deposited into American landfills is organic and yard waste. A large majority of the waste is plastic, industrial, paper, and electronic waste. These types of waste contain toxic inks, heavy metals, other chemicals, and even low-level radioactive materials that mix under the heat and pressure of compacted trash. This is why reclaimed landfills are only planted with certain types of plants, and only approved for certain types of uses after reclamation.

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