Everyone produces trash everyday but Americans are apparently churning out twice as much as previously thought, resulting in bigger repercussions for the environment.
In a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers analyzed measurements taken from all landfills in the United States and found that estimates provided by the Environmental Protection Agency are lower than the 5 pounds of trash that the average American actually sends to a landfill everyday.
Originally, the researchers' goal was to simply determine if methane capture systems in landfills were efficient. Given that landfills are the third biggest source of methane in the country, how well they capture the gas will have an immense effect on efforts to cut emissions from greenhouse gases. And since it is 35 times more potent at retaining heat compared to carbon dioxide, methane is a focus of the Obama administration's environmental initiatives.
Earlier, the EPA measured how much trash was being sent to landfills according to population data and consumption patterns. It was only in 2010 that the agency required municipal landfills to record just exactly how much trash is being sent to them. Using this new information, the researchers assessed more than 1,200 landfills, gathering more accurate data on just how much trash are ending up in landfills every year.
Based on their findings, the researchers report that 289 million tons of trash were thrown out in 2012, more than double of the 135 million tons that the EPA estimated. Because there appears to be more trash ending up in landfills, the results of the study also showed that less Americans were also recycling. In fact, factoring in the new figures, recycling rates drop to 21 percent from the EPA-estimated 35 percent.
Methane is created when organic trash decomposes so a higher trash volume means that landfills are also producing more methane, most of which are unrecorded because the estimates only accounted for a certain level of the gas being released in the atmosphere.
Instead of investing in more methane capture systems though, it would be better to throw out less organic trash and take advantage of composting. Composting also produces methane but when done properly, creates less of the gas, making emissions more manageable. Aside from learning composting, Americans are also urged to be less wasteful to begin with.
Authors for the study include Jon Powell, Timothy Townsend and Julie Zimmerman. Powell and Zimmerman are affiliated with Yale University while Townsend is from the University of Florida.
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski | Flickr