It looks like the 2,000 active landfills in the US that hold the bulk of this trash are reaching their capacity, according to a new report by the Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Protocol (SWEEP).
The US generates more than 258 million tons of municipal solid waste each year — that’s all the packaging, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, batteries, and everything else that gets thrown into garbage cans and hauled onto sidewalks for weekly pick-up.
Around 34.6% of that waste gets recycled, some gets burned for energy, and the rest gets sent to landfills.
In fact, the US is on pace to run out of room in landfills within 18 years, potentially creating an environmental disaster, the report argues. The Northeast is running out of landfills the fastest, while Western states have the most remaining space, according to the report.
Meanwhile, the amount of solid waste being produced is rising. And a regulation recently adopted by China could bring about a landfill catastrophe even sooner.
At the start of 2018, the Chinese government enacted a ban on the import of various kinds of low-grade plastics and other materials that are extremely hard to recycle.
The US exports around one-sixth of its recyclable material to China, and now waste processors are scrambling to find alternative places to send it.
This is already creating massive landfill pile-ups in parts of the country, according to the New York Times. With trash spilling out of warehouses and lots, the predicament offers a glimpse of what could happen on a larger scale over the next few decades.
Some states, including New York, already ship a huge amount of waste to other states because they have nowhere to put it within their borders.
There are a few things that could be done to prevent landfills from filling up.
Waste processors could begin burning more waste for energy, but the emissions and air pollution this would cause may be too great to justify.
The US currently burns around 33 million tons of waste each year for energy, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Other countries invest heavily in burning trash. Sweden, for example, burns around half of of its solid waste and has developed ways to reduce emissions.
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The US could also create more landfills to accommodate the surge in trash, but it generally takes several years to find an appropriate landfill location, get a permit for it, and then build structures that meet environmental standards, according to SWEEP.
Plus, communities generally oppose the creation of new landfills because it could mean air, water, and soil pollution.
More landfills also means more climate change. As food waste and other types of garbage decompose, they release methane and other greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change.
The most environmentally sound approach, according to the Outline, would be to stop producing as much trash in the first place.
This would require the active involvement of regulators, manufacturers, and consumers.
In recent years, environmentalists have pushed for bans on various kinds of plastic, manufacturers have begun to develop more sustainable packaging, and ordinary people have begun to embrace environmentally friendly habits.
If these trends continue, then the US can avoid turning into one giant landfill.
Global Citizen campaigns on the United Nations’ Global Goals, which call on countries to develop sustainable waste management systems. You can take action on this issue here.