Americans Dump Twice as Much Trash as Previously Thought

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 estimate was more than 50 percent off

Franco Vogt/CORBIS

How much trash makes its way into American dumps every year? The Environmental Protection Agency used to think it had that number locked down. But now, reports Science’s Sid Perkins, new research shows that its 2012 estimate was off by more than 50 percent.

In a letter to Nature Climate Change, researchers show that in 2012, the United States threw away 262 million tons of municipal waste — more than double the previous estimate of 122 million tons. Using new data provided by the EPA, the team was able to more accurately assess how much waste is disposed of every year.

The new data, the team writes in The Houston Chronicle, “was based, reflected-measured, quality-assured data from every reporting facility.” They explain that the data now comes from incoming and outgoing truckloads at dumps instead of relying on things like population data and consumption patterns

The news that the United States likely throws away twice as much trash as previously expected is sobering — and the research contains other wake-up calls, too. For example, it points out that though there is room in American landfills for its trash for “the foreseeable future,” the landfills that remain open are responsible for 91 percent of dump-emitted methane. And the team writes that given the discrepancy between prediction and actual data when it comes to American landfills, “similar estimates in other developed and developing nations."

Or maybe it’s the United States that stands to learn from other countries — Xinhuanet reports that in China, a landfill has been attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year with a “trash tour” that exposes the technical challenges faced by landfill experts.

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