Common Myths About Landfills

We tend to generate the most rumors and misconceptions about common things, so to no one’s surprise, there are plenty of myths about landfills

Myths about landfills are so pervasive that most people have developed a sort of “not in my backyard” attitude about the issue. In general, people tend to perceive landfills as facilities that forever ruin the land.

This is ironic, since many housing developments, parks, and golf courses are build on recovered landfills. Ditto for New York’s La Guardia Airport and Riker’s Island jail, to name just two public examples. But let’s look at those other landfill myths, shall we?

Myth #1: Landfills Poison the Environment!

This can in fact happen, but it’s very rare in the modern sanitary landfill. Everyday landfills aren’t toxic waste dumps or Superfund sites. Most material that ends up there is municipal waste that’s either biodegradable, or doesn’t break down at all.

Indeed, in modern landfills, material rarely biodegrades anyway (hence undecayed nine-year-old hotdogs and such). Rainwater can leach through modern landfills, but is unlikely to pick up anything toxic from normal solid waste.

Back in the old days, though, landfills were often sited in swamps, to fill them in and reduce insect populations (and thus disease). But that destroys wetlands and can generate runoff that can harm the environment (and people), and hasn’t been done in decades. Modern landfills are safe.

Myth #2: New York’s Fresh Kills Landfill is Visible from Orbit!

No it isn’t. Claimants often repeat this myth in the same breath as the claim that Fresh Kills is the largest landfill in the world, which isn’t true either; it’s not even the biggest one in the U.S. Puente Hills Landfill outside Los Angeles is. Probably.

And here’s the kicker: Fresh Kills occupies maybe 1% of Staten Island’s total landmass. Apparently Staten Island isn’t even visible from space, at least not using the naked eye… so certainly you can’t see Fresh Kills from orbit. D’oh!

Myth #3: We’re Running Out of Landfill Space!

While it’s a good idea to do all you can to conserve landfill space, we won’t be running out of space for landfills anytime soon. You often hear a statistic cited that almost every dump now open will be filled and closed within a few years, and that’s true. But that’s just how landfills work.

There’s plenty of land to use, too. Here’s another statistic:

If you packed all the municipal waste that the U.S. is likely to generate in the next 1,000 years into one spot, it would fit into an area 44 miles square and 120 feet deep. This will never happen, of course, but the point is that such a volume takes up just a tenth of a percent of our available land.

None of these myths about landfills is anything to be worried about, it seems.