Talking Trash

The United States of Garbage

BY Kevin Litman-Navarro

Published July 27, 2018

There are 1,170 operational landfills in the United States. Together, these trash heaps contain more than 11 billion tons of solid waste, the cumulative detritus from centuries of consumption.

This is not great. For each person in the country, there are 34 tons of refuse, which, as you know, is enough to craft a few hundred trash sculptures of every single person, construct a giant WasteCastle™ to house all the JunkPeople™, and stimulate the economy of the nascent GarbageEmpire™ by printing trillions of LitterBucks™ from all the detritus in all the landfills.

Still, modern landfills have been the best/only answer to incessant American production.

Cleaning up our act

Today, the EPA is responsible for the administration of the United States' landfills. But prior to the mid-20th century, there was little regulatory oversight for dumps. I wasn't there at the time, but apparently it was gross.

At some point, people realized that just leaving trash everywhere wasn't cool, burning it was bad for your health, and massive amounts of garbage could only be consolidated without causing deletirious effects if certain sanitary standards were met.

Annual landfill construction totals in the United States

Congress passes the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) in 1965,

enacting stringent regulations on landfills. Many old dumps,

unable to meet the new requirements, are shut down.

Shortly after the SWDA becomes law,

landfill construction reaches its apex,

with 119 new landfills built in 1972 alone.


There is no such thing as a free dump

Wake up and smell the garbage, nothing in this world is free. Pawning off your garbage on someone else means paying up. First, you have to pay the tipping fee, which is set by the landfill and is paid directly to the proprieters of said landfill.

Second, you need to account for the state surchage. If Big Trash had its way, the surcharge would be infintesimal, lobbied into nothingness. As it turns out, states with a low surcharge and generally low tipping fees — like Michigan — will attract garbage.

Unsurprisingly, higher dumping costs generally mean less imported garbage.

Highest garbage volume totals by state


Lowest garbage volume totals by state


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