The Guide To America's Mailstream
Ecology : Postal2020.com
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Ecology

The Truth About America’s Landfill Glut

The Truth About America’s Landfill GlutFor many years the media has published innumerable stories which worry that we are running out of landfill space. Such stories properly raise public concerns and have required virtually every community to look at landfill issues.

But if it’s fair to raise questions about landfill capacity then it’s equally fair to provide some answers. Are we running out of landfill space? The answer may be surprising.

According to much-quoted statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, the number of landfills in the United States dropped from 7,924 in 1988 to 1,754 in 2006.

:Landfill Chart

Source: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2006, EPA, page 8)

The EPA chart plainly shows that the number of landfills in the United States has fallen 77 percent since 1988. Given such a decline, the natural assumption is that a massive reduction in numbers must also mean that national landfill capacity has shrunk.

The problem: Such assumptions are not true.

The EPA states in its 2006 MSW study that “while the number of U.S. landfills has steadily declined over the years, the average landfill size has increased. At the national level, landfill capacity appears to be sufficient, although it is limited in some areas.” In fact, the EPA says that “since 1990, the total volume of MSW going to landfills dropped by 4 million tons, from 142.3 million to 138.2 million tons in 2006.” This is a remarkable figure when you consider that the U.S. population between 1990 and 2006 increased by more than 50 million people.

Our landfill supply nationwide has not merely increased, we have a vast overabundance. While the number of landfills has declined, the measure that counts — landfill capacity — has increased enormously.

Because we have a growing volume of nationwide landfill capacity, disposal costs are low. This is the best possible evidence that a landfill shortage does not exist and it’s also good news for local homeowners: If there really was a landfill shortage then local garbage disposal fees would soar.

Why do we have a landfill glut? Four reasons stand out:

1. Consolidation
2. Recovery
3. Technology
4. China: The New Market

Consolidation

The best example of changing landfill numbers occurred in Wisconsin. Between 1986 and 1991 the state closed 850 landfills, opened nine new ones and expanded 12 existing sites. The result? Landfill capacity in the state increased by 44.5 million cubic yards. (See: Landfill Capacity in North America, 1991 Update, National Solid Waste Management Association, table 3, page 4)

You can see where this leads. A scary headline will say “Wisconsin Lost 850 Landfills” but that’s plainly not the whole story. A more sensible headline would say “Wisconsin Lost 850 Landfills, Capacity Grew.”

The Wisconsin example explains why landfill numbers are falling. Older, less efficient and less environmentally secure landfills are being replaced by larger, more efficient and more environmentally safe facilities. In other words, if you replace 20 thimbles of milk with a single one-gallon jug, it doesn’t mean you can’t store more milk.

“It became clear in the early 1990’s that there was a glut of disposal space, not the widely believed shortage that had drawn headlines in the 1980’s,” says The New York Times.

“Although many town dumps had closed, they were replaced by fewer, but huge, regional ones. That sent dumping prices plunging in many areas in the early 1990’s and led to a long slump in the waste industry.

“Since then,” says the Times, “the industry and its followers have been relying on time — about 330 million tons of trash went into landfills in the United States last year alone, according to Solid Waste Digest, a trade publication — to fill up some of those holes, erase the glut and send disposal prices skyward again. Instead, dump capacity has kept growing, and rapidly, even as only a few new dumps were built.” (See: Rumors of a Shortage of Dump Space Were Greatly Exaggerated, August 12, 2005)

Three companies — Waste Management, Allied Waste Industries and Republic Services — collect more than half the nation’s trash. Rather than running out of landfill space, they have sufficient capacity to operate for decades assuming no further expansion of existing sites, no additional sites and no benefit from improved technology.

  • As of December 31, 2006, says Waste Management in its 2006 Annual Report, “the weighted average remaining landfill life for all of our owned or operated landfills is approximately 28 years.” This is an increase of one year when compared with the 2004 Annual Report.
  • “”We have a network of 161 owned or operated active landfills with remaining operating lives ranging from 1 to over 150 years,” according to the 2007 Allied Waste Industries annual report. “Based on available capacity using annual volumes, the average remaining life of our landfills approximates 38 years.”
  • Republic Services said in its 2007 Annual Report that it “owned or operated 58 landfills, which had 9,707 permitted acres and total available permitted and probable expansion disposal capacity of approximately 1.7 billion in-place cubic yards. It said “the average estimated remaining life of all of our landfills is 27 years.”

In fact, however, it would be short-sighted to assume that there will be no further capacity increases. As the Times points out, “in the last four years the three companies have “buried 882 million tons of waste. But the remaining permitted capacity of their combined 410 dumps did not shrink. It expanded over those four years by more than one billion tons. The three companies now expect expansions of another 1.8 billion tons.”

Recovery

During the past five decades American attitudes toward recycling and ecology radically changed. Concerns regarding green issues — once largely restricted to environmental activists — entered the mainstream and impacted such issues as automobile mileage, global warming and “smart” zoning.

Environmental concerns also influenced landfill policies and materials recovery. Figures from the EPA reflect a sea change in national thinking.

What we now know is that economic and population growth are both possible even as landfill usage declines. Figures from the 45-year period between 1960 and 2006 show a dramatic change in the way we reduce, re-use and recycle:

  • The generation of municipal solid waste almost tripled from 88.1 million tons to 251.3 million tons.
  • The volume of material landfilled amounted to 138.2 million tons in 2006 — that’s LESS than the volume of MSW landfilled in 1990 when the country had 50 million fewer people.
  • The amount of material landfilled per day per person in 2006 was less than the amount landfilled in 2000.

Combine reduced landfill usage with increased landfill capacity and the result is diminished demand for landfill space nationwide.

The bottom line? Despite a vast population increase, nationwide landfill use is down and materials recovery is up. Seen another way, a larger population is sending less to landfills. Efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle are paying off. No less important, with improved technology and increasing collection efforts, even better results may be possible.

EPA Chart

Source: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal

in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2006, EPA, page 9

Technology

We not only have vastly larger landfills, we are not only putting less in them, we also use them more efficiently. A given amount of landfill space will hold about 30 percent more content today than in the past.

Waste companies and municipalities, says the Times are “burying trash more tightly, so that each ton takes up less space, increasingly using giant 59-ton compacting machines guided by global positioning systems that show the operator when he has rolled over a section of the dump enough times. They cover trash at the end of the day, to keep it from blowing away, with tarps or foam or lawn clippings instead of the thick layers of soil that formerly ate up dump capacity.” (See: Rumors of a Shortage of Dump Space Were Greatly Exaggerated, August 12, 2005)

We don’t know what benefits technology will provide in the future, but what we do know is this: To date landfill usage has become substantially more efficient due to better management practices. It is entirely possible and reasonable that in the future we will also see improved landfill efficiency, thus limiting the need for additional landfill capacity.

China: The New Market

The richest woman in China, Zhang Yin, is worth $3.4 billion. But unlike other Chinese entrepreneurs who have made their money by exporting to the West, Zhang built her fortune another way: She’s the “queen of waste paper,” China’s largest importer of scrap paper. (See: China’s Richest Woman: From Waste To Wealth, China Daily, November 20, 2006)

For many years there has been a growing and massive trade imbalance with China. For the period from 2000 through 2007, our balance of trade with China showed a loss of more than $1.2 trillion.

Not only is the trade imbalance growing, it is likely to increase as China begins to export big-ticket items such as cars, trucks and planes.

US-China Trade
Balance
Year Exports Imports Balance
2007 $65,238.3 $321,507.8 -$256,269.5
2006 $55,185.7 $287,77.4 -$232,588.6
2005 $41,925.3 $243,470.1 -$201,544.8
2004 $34,744.1 $196,682.0 -$161.938.0
2003 $28,367.9 $152,436.1 -$124,068.2
2002 $22,127.7 $125,192.6 -$103,064.9
2001 $19,182.3 $102,278.4 -$83,096.1
2000 $16,185.2 $100,018.2 -$83,833.0

All figures are in millions of U.S. dollars.
Source: Foreign Trade Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau

There is, however, one area where the U.S. is a major exporter to China. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, “the United States shipped 7.7 million metric tons of waste paper to China in 2005.” Between 1995 and 2005, the USITC reports that “Chinese imports of wood pulp and waste paper from the United States increased by 500 percent over the same period, while imports of finished paper declined by 12 percent.” (See: The Effects of Increasing Chinese Demand on Global Commodity Markets, pages 1-4 and 4-14)

In the U.S. we measure large weights in terms of tons, however the measure used for waste paper exports by the USITC is metric tons. While a single U.S. ton weighs 2,000 pounds, a metric ton is substantially larger, weighing in at 2,204.62 pounds. In effect, the 7.7 million metric tons of scrap paper sent to China in 2005 is actually equal to 8,487,787 U.S. tons.

The huge and growing Chinese market for U.S. scrap paper created by Zhang and others has important landfill implications in the United States. The waste paper shipped to China each year for recycling into paper, cartons and other products represents nearly 8.5 million tons of paper that will not be deposited in American landfills. Instead, it will now bring needed dollars back to the U.S.

What is the value of the scrap paper we send to China? According to the U.S. International Trade Administration, U.S. scrap paper exports to China were worth almost $1.5 billion in 2007.

Mail, Trees & Common Sense

Many people are concerned with the preservation of forest land and with good reason: Forests are beautiful, they produce vast quantities of oxygen, they are home to innumerable animals and they are part of our heritage.

There’s no question that mail is regarded as a paper-based product, and so it’s fair to ask: How does the use of mail impact our forests?

To answer this question let’s go back to Adam Smith, the father of economics. In 1776 Smith said we are each guided by “the invisible hand of self-interest.” In other words, we each try to do the things that are best for us.

Now, imagine that you were the president of a paper company. Would you buy expensive wood or inexpensive wood to make paper? You would surely buy the least expensive wood possible — in fact, if it was possible you would buy no wood at all, you would recycle old paper to make new paper.

The bottom line is this: Timber is priced on the basis of its highest and best use. The most expensive woods are used for such purposes as building furniture and home construction. For a paper company, it makes no sense to bid for such timber.

What does make sense is to literally grow wood — to create tree farms where land can be seeded with the best stock, harvested years later and then re-planted. It’s a huge investment, but one that makes the most financial and ecological sense.

When it comes to forest lands, says The New York Times, “the acreage is essentially the same as it was a century ago, and there is over 30 percent more wood volume per acre than in 1952.” (See: Family Matters, Generational Shifts Loom for Big Tracks of American Woods, June 14, 2007)

Mail, Trees & Common Sense

One reason for the preservation of so much forest land is that tree farms have proven to be enormously successful:

___In 1957 the U.S. had 516 billion cubic feet of trees for growing stock. (See: 2003 National Report on Sustainable Forests, U.S. Forest Service, page 3)

___In 1997, the volume of trees for growing stock had increased 36 percent to 856 billion cubic square feet. (See: 2003 National Report on Sustainable Forests, U.S. Forest Service, page 3)

___In 2007, the U.S. had 925 billion cubic feet of growing stock, 79 percent more than in 1957 and 9.6 percent than in 1997.  (See:  Forest Inventory and Analysis RPA Assessment tables, U.S. Forest Service, preliminary study, Table 17, May, 2007)

“Deforestation in the United States, rampant in the 19th century has stopped,” says The New York Times. “Forested acreage of the country began rising in the 20th century, and is still rising. Why? Wood is no longer a primary fuel, while high-yield agriculture allowed millions of acres to be retired from farming and returned to trees.” (See: “There Goes the Neighborhood,” January 30, 2005)

It is estimated, says the U.S. Forest Service, that at the beginning of European settlement in 1630 “the area of forest land that would become the United States was 1,045 million acres or about 46 percent of the total land area. By 1907, the area of forest land had declined to an estimated 759 million acres or 34 percent of the total land area. Forest area has been relatively stable since 1907. In 1997, 747 million acres — or 33 percent of the total land area of the United States — was in forest land. Today’s forest land area amounts to about 70 percent of the area that was forested in 1630. Since 1630, about 297 million acres of forest land have been converted to other uses—mainly agricultural. More than 75 percent of the net conversion to other uses occurred in the 19th century.” (See: U.S Forest Facts and Historical Trends, U.S. Forest Service, page 3)

“The U.S. Agriculture Department,” according to ABC News, “says America has 749 million acres of forestland. In 1920, we had 735 million acres of forest. We have more forest now. How can that be? One reason is technology that allows us to grow five times more food per acre — so we need less farmland. Lots of what once was farmland has reverted to forest.”

Forest Land

“Forest land,” reports The New York Times, “hasn’t been shrinking at all — it’s been fairly stable since 1920 and has actually grown in the last decade.” (See: “Cheer Up, Earth Day Is Over,” April 23, 2006)

In fact, figures from the U.S. Forest Service confirm media reports: In May 2007 the Service estimated that the total amount of forest land in the U.S. amounted to 749,758 acres. To give perspective, the total land mass of the U.S. amounts to 2,263,952 acres. In effect, despite a vastly-larger population than in the past, one-third of the country is actually covered by forest land. (See:  Forest Inventory and Analysis RPA Assessment tables, U.S. Forest Service, preliminary study, Table 1, May, 2007)

So the next time you hear someone explain with great certainty that “mail hurts our forests,” ask: Why would it make any sense to use valuable trees for paper when far-cheaper alternatives are easily available? And why do we have more trees and more forest land than 50 years ago?

Mail, AARP & 53 Million Trees

Mail, AARP & 53 Million TreesAccording to the AARP Bulletin, “the 19 billion catalogs mailed to Americans every year consume 3.6 million tons of paper and 53 million trees.” (See May 2008, Page 25)

Such a short sentence. Can it be true?

Let’s see, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, advertising mail (also known as “Standard A” mail) totals 5.89 million tons before recycling. However, 2.28 million tons are recycled, a recovery rate of 38.7%. (See: 2006 MSW Characterization Data Tables, EPA, table 4).

So, if we subtract 2.28 million tons from 5.89 million tons we get 3.61 million tons of advertising mail.

Does this mean that 3.6 million tons of material was made from trees? Nope. Not hardly. Much of what goes through the mailstream comes from recycled materials.

Not only that, but not all advertising mail consists of “catalogs.” According to the U.S. Postal Service, Standard A mail includes printed matter, flyers, circulars and advertising; newsletters, bulletins and catalogs; and small packages.

But let’s say there are 19 billion catalogs. How much ad mail is sent out each year?

According to the 2007 annual report of the U.S. Postal Service and there we can see that 103.5 billion pieces of ad mail went through the mailstream.

Nineteen billion items sure seems like a small part of 103.5 billion items, which means that it’s not possible for 19 billion catalogs to use 3.6 million tons of paper unless flyers, circulars, newspapers and such suddenly weigh nothing.

Now, about those trees:

If we have 3.6 million tons of ad mail, and if each ton weighs 2,000 pounds, that would mean we have 7,200,000,000 pounds of material. If it takes 53 million trees to make 7.2 billion pounds of paper then an average “tree” weighs just 135.84 pounds!

Does this make sense to anyone?

According to AARP’s 2005 IRS Form 990, the association spent $108.3 million on “printing and shipping.”

AARP says that its “more than 36 million members receive ‘AARP The Magazine,’ which is published every other month (bimonthly)” and that “all members also receive 11 issues of ‘AARP Bulletin,’ a monthly publication (July and August are combined).”

That’s six magazines per year x 36,000,000 or 216,000,000 million magazines annually plus 11 bulletins per year x 36,000,000 or 396,000,000 bulletins — a total of 612,000,000 paper-based items sent through the mailstream per year.

Surely if AARP is worried about teeny micro trees it could shut off its own distribution torrent and rebate $100 million or so to its members. Otherwise it ought to explain why using the mail is okay for AARP — but not okay for others. It should also explain what will happen to stamp prices if advertisers leave the mailstream.

Most importantly, if mail volume is reduced AARP should explain what will happen to the jobs inside our borders that are anchored by the mailstream. As The Washington Post has explained:

“The Postal Service has about 738,000 employees, relies on revenue from operations rather than taxpayer funding and is one of few federal bureaucracies with which most Americans have regular contact. It is at the center of a $900 billion mailing industry, which employs 9 million people in such businesses as direct mail, paper manufacturers and printers.”