It’s Garbage: What’s the Problem?

Readers, writers, students, and teachers still confess to believing that there is a garbage problem. “We have too much garbage,” they claim. In a reply to a previous blog I was queried, “Shouldn’t we start training those who will inherit the waste problem?”  What waste problem, I ask?

The market generates landfill space as it is needed. The market works by responding to changing demand.  Landfills, like proved gas reserves, continue to grow as demand rises. Wait, you say, gas is a finite resource, how could gas reserves possibly increase?

Measuring gas in the ground is complex and costly. Therefore, we only invest resources to measure the gas that is believed to be economically efficient to remove. We measure the gas we think we are going to remove from the ground; that is “proved reserves.” The total quantity of gas that actually exists underground is unknown.  This means that as technology increases, which lowers the cost of gas removal, and the price of gas rises (in real, inflation adjusted terms) so does research and development and, hence proved reserves increase. This is true even though we continue to pump more and more gas out of the ground.

If gas is a finite resource, it then follows that at some point we may see a decline in proved gas reserves. If that happens the market-determined price for gas will rise indicating its scarcity. A higher gas price motivates producers to seek more and consumers to conserve and use less. It also motivates a switch to alternatives, or substitutes, which can compete at that price. At the end of the day (year, decade, century, or millennium) we will not run out of gas. Rather, we will shift into the alternative fuels that are cost competitive. So it will go with landfills.

Landfill capacity is commensurate with its demand. We will not see an enormous amount of landfill space being created until it is needed; that would be a waste of resources. Regardless, we are not running out of landfill space. It is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) problem, if anything. And that may change as more landfills provide neighbors with relatively inexpensive energy. Landfill gas is a gas substitute.

Originally posted on Environmental Trends.


  1. hoosiermuse says:

    Hi, Holly,

    I see that you referred to my query of your previous blogpost about landfill space. I hope people read that sincere note because you seem to have taken it out of context. I simply responded to what you wrote at that time:

    “It is a widely held belief that we are running out of landfill space and, hence, should reduce the amount of garbage we dump. As shown by the chart above, the number of landfills has declined over the past two decades. Landfill capacity, however, has increased. According to the EPA, the number of years of remaining available landfill space has increased from about 9.5 years in 1990 to 20 years today. Landfill dumping fees (tipping fees shown on the graph) also demonstrate there is no lack of landfill space available. Tipping fees rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to increased EPA regulations but have declined slightly since.”

    Aren’t you saying, by using the EPA’s data, that we’ll run out of landfill space in 20 years, a longer timeframe than had been previously suggested? If so, I asked why is 20 years an acceptable amount of time to put off establishing alternatives to a landfilled waste stream (e.g., closed-loop manufacturing). Given the time it takes for R&D, training and the implementation of alternatives, shouldn’t we act with a greater sense of urgency?

    Now you introduce the topic of landfill gas, something you didn’t mention before. Interesting but off-topic, it seems, from my previous query. At any rate, it would be interesting to hear if there are particular kinds of waste that should go into gas-producing landfills. Perhaps in the least we could manufacture products only with resources that would ultimately be discarded into such landfills, but then I’d like to see data indicating if that cycle is truly cost-effective and environmentally sensible. Please account for production and transport costs, the energy consumed and pollution generated on each end, etc. How does it compare to other sources of energy? If it’s not sensible, landfills would be as I currently see them: a reflection of our failure to reengineer our economy and reorient our values toward Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. As I recall, PERC champions his beliefs. Me, too.

    If there’s one criticism I have for the handful of Percolator blogposts I’ve read, it’s that they seem ideologically simplistic: The market will always solve our problems. It’s as if there’s no need to plan ahead. Just react. As someone who’s worked for private industry, nonprofits and government agencies, I’ve witnessed innovative solutions from many angles, and certainly failures. If possible, please go into greater depth with your arguments or link to resources that do so. Also, if possible, please analyze the corporate interests that don’t necessarily compete on a level playing field. The oil industry, for instance. What factors are necessary in a truly free market for alternative energy sources to emerge, including landfill gas?

    Thank you,

    Jeff Muse

  2. hoosiermuse says:

    Hi again, Holly,

    I see the link at the end of your article, the graph re: methane from landfills. Interesting and helpful. Thank you.

    Jeff Muse

  3. Waste Management has been denied the opportunity to build a replacement landfill in three South Carolina counties (by the respective county councils, acting at the behest of citizens who do not want to house out-of-state garbage for centuri…es). Public opinion cannot always be purchased for the right “price.” Landfills are waste disposal dinosaurs, and the same public that rejects landfills must begin to examine the alternatives (waste reduction through increased recycling and decreased packaging and consumption, expensive PEM, etc.). Landfill gas production only lasts about 25 years and is hardly an incentive for hosting a smelly behemoth. I speak from experience. My SC county currently hosts 2 large landfills.