What Is a Landfill? The Environmental Costs of Waste (2023) (2023)

It’s essential for countries worldwide to maintain a secure, contained area to dispose of waste produced by citizens and businesses.

Landfills play a critical role in keeping towns clean and maintaining public health. However, relying on landfills for waste management extracts enormous environmental costs.

The average person understands that most of their waste ends up in a landfill. But what is a landfill, and how do they work? Do they make an impact on the environment?

Below, we’ll explain what landfills are, how they operate, and some environmental concerns over landfills.

Skip to What You Need

  • 1 What is a Landfill? Overview of the Basics
  • 2 How Many Landfills Are in the World?
  • 3 How Do Landfills Operate?
  • 4 How Do Landfills Impact the Environment?
  • 5 How Consumers Can Reduce Landfill Waste: Actionable Solutions
  • 6 Understanding the Environmental Costs of Landfills
  • 7 About the Author
  • 8 Frequently Asked Questions
    • 8.1 What is the biggest landfill in the world?
    • 8.2 What happens when a landfill is full?
    • 8.3 What is a sanitary landfill?
  • 9 References and Useful Resources

What is a Landfill? Overview of the Basics

First, it’s important to define what a landfill is and is not. Modern-day landfills are well-engineered and well-managed facilities that are disposal sites for solid waste. These sites are placed in designated areas and are actively monitored to comply with federal regulations.

What Is a Landfill? The Environmental Costs of Waste (2023) (1)

One goal of using landfill sites is to prevent potential contaminants from entering the environment. On-site environmental modeling systems do exist to mitigate environmental costs, such as checking for groundwater contamination and landfill gas.

Here are several types of landfills:

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  • Municipal solid waste (MSWLF):These landfills receive household waste and other types of non-hazardous trash.
  • Industrial waste:These landfills collect industrial and commercial waste, asignificant percentage of solid waste.
  • Hazardous waste:These landfills contain hazardous waste and do not store any solid waste.
  • Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB): These landfills contain industrial products and chemicals.

How Many Landfills Are in the World?

Landfills are a long-standing waste management technique, but it’s important to note that many regions around the world lack access to reliable waste collection and management services.

Many low-income countries rely on open dumpsites rather than regulated, systematic landfills, which extracts an even higher cost for the poorer communities living in close proximity to these sources of health risks and environmental pollutants.

Currently,37% of global waste is collectedin a landfill, and 31% is collected in open dumping. Environmentally safe waste management is an expensive endeavor, making it harder for lower-income countries to establish this infrastructure.

What Is a Landfill? The Environmental Costs of Waste (2023) (2)

Even so, high-income countries disproportionately generate waste. According to the World Bank, 16% of the world’s population in richer countries generates 34% of global waste.

The top five largest landfills in the worldrange from 600 to 2,200 acresin size, with the Apex Regional Landfill in Las Vegas, Nevada, holding 50 million tons of waste in its expansive square footage. Runner ups include landfills in Mexico City, Shanghai, Rome and Los Angeles.

Next, we’ll discuss how landfills operate and handle waste storage:

How Do Landfills Operate?

Throughout the world, waste collection and disposal is largely up to local or regional agencies. In most towns and cities, waste management employees will bring large amounts of non-recyclable waste in trucks and dispose of it in the landfill. In some locations, you can drop your trash off at stations that dispose of it in the proper landfill.

Because landfill techniques have evolved, sanitary landfills are now highly organized in higher-income countries with the capacity to invest in better infrastructure.

In environmentally-optimized locations, waste is strategically sorted to leave the smallest possible environmental impact. If a landfill reaches full capacity, it is capped so no more waste can be stored.

Take a look at this video by mpmyersphd to see how a landfill works in more detail:

(Video) Environmental Impacts Of Consumer Products

Once a landfill is capped, at least two feet of soil is put on top of it to limit debris migration and prevent contaminants from spreading into the nearby environment. The life cycle of a landfill canrange from 30 to 50 yearsand many countries will monitor the landfill for decades after closure.

How Do Landfills Impact the Environment?

Firstly, it’s important to note that the number of landfill sites in the U.S. has dropped dramatically in the past decades.

There weremore than 6,000 landfillsin the country in 1990, and in 2018, Statista reports that the number dropped to only 1,269. While this is promising, however, waste management continues to be a pressing environmental issue worldwide.

The primary concern with landfills regarding the environment is that they’re the largest sources of methane. Methane is a gas found in small quantities in the atmosphere. However, it’s a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG) that is even more potent than carbon dioxide and absorbs significant amounts of heat.

What Is a Landfill? The Environmental Costs of Waste (2023) (3)

Methane is a significant contributor to global warming and climate change. The United Nations (UN) released a report in 2021 saying urgent steps need to be takento reduce methane emissions. Even just a 45% reduction in methane emissions could prevent:

  • 260,000 premature deaths
  • 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits
  • 73 billion hours of lost labor
  • 25 million tonnes of annual crop losses

Landfills are also connected to larger issues with how hazardous and difficult waste is managed worldwide. Many developing countries become the recipients of global waste as richer counterparts find cheap solutions to waste management.

However, these regions often lack the tools and resources to safely and properlydispose of end-of-life electronicsor hazardous materials.

Finding more sustainable solutions to waste management is needed to keep the environment from deteriorating. For example, green construction works to reduce the amount of waste produced.

In industrial and construction industries, actions like building green spaces, using eco-friendly equipment, and relying onnon-toxic building materialsare some ways that can improve waste management.

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On a global scale, there is more pressure on wide scale action to reduce waste and mitigate climate change. Many countries have signed the Paris Agreement to work towards net-zero carbon emissions, with the ultimate goal of slowing down climate change and its negative effects.

How Consumers Can Reduce Landfill Waste: Actionable Solutions

It’s no secret that modern households have a waste problem. The U.S. average person producesaround 4.5 pounds of wasteper day (or 2.04 kg), and the worst part is that much of that is made up of potentially recyclable materials.

In comparison to other countries, the U.S. has a considerably high amount of waste. For example, in Europe, the average amount of waste generated byone person annually is only 487 kg, or 1,073 pounds.

What Is a Landfill? The Environmental Costs of Waste (2023) (4)

You may be curious how you, as a consumer, canprevent waste from entering landfillsunnecessarily. Living a low-waste or even a zero-waste lifestyle can be achievable with a few lifestyle changes — and collectively, these changes can start to shift culture away from a mass consumption and mass waste mindset.

Below are some actions you can take to reduce the waste you produce:

  • Donate old clothes at your local thrift stores, such as Plato’s Closet or Goodwill.
  • Make good use of food wasteby composting. Make it a fun family activity!
  • Reuse old shopping bags and containers. Try to limit how often you order takeout, as it requires a lot of plastic packaging that may end up in a landfill.
  • Buy a reusable water bottle and ditch plastic bottles. Plastic water bottles end up in landfills and oceans and harm the environment or marine life.
  • Learn your town’s recycling procedures and recycle as often as possible.
  • Purchase items that are made of or with recycled materials.
  • Urge your friends and family to take these actions to prevent high amounts of landfill waste.

Methane from landfills has a devastating impact on the environment, so everyone must pitch in and do what they can to reduce their carbon footprint.

Environmentalists may easily get dismayed at the scale of the issue, but as with any systematic problem, chipping away at our individual contributions and spreading the word to convince others can build into meaningful, widespread change.

Understanding the Environmental Costs of Landfills

More work needs to be done to make landfills more sustainable, as they release high levels of methane that harm the environment.

There is no single solution to the issue of waste management — change will require buy-in from national and regional governments, companies that produce excess waste, and individuals who need to accept lifestyle changes to play their part.

Consumers can do their part to reduce waste using some of the tips listed above. Embracing alow-waste lifestylecan not only help you take responsibility for your eco-friendly goals, but also enable you to share your experiences with others and begin taking steps for collective action to reduce our reliance on landfills.

(Video) Sustainable Technologies Zero Waste to Landfill Model Video

About the Author

What Is a Landfill? The Environmental Costs of Waste (2023) (5)Evelyn Long is the editor-in-chief ofRenovated, where she covers sustainable housing and improved building techniques for readers interested in a greener future.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the biggest landfill in the world?

The biggest formal landfill in the world is the Apex Regional Landfill in Las Vegas, Nevada. This landfill is 2,200 acres big and holds 50 million tons of waste. The Apex Region Landfill is expected to have capacityfor over 200 yearsof waste. Read the full article for more info on big landfills.

What happens when a landfill is full?

Waste management practices differ by locality. When regulated landfills are full, they are topped with clay and a plastic shield to contain environmental runoff. Soil is added to the top regularly to lace the waste layer with dirt. Modern systems will also vent the methane produced by decomposing waste or save it to collect as a source of energy. It’s important for waste management facilities to continue to monitor landfills even when they close. This maintenance includes monitoring groundwater, adding more layers of soil and dealing with methane. Read the full article for more on landfill management.

What is a sanitary landfill?

Sanitary landfills are carefully regulated systems where waste iscontained from the environmentuntil it is safe. Sanitary landfills aim to isolate contaminants from the surrounding soil and groundwater until the waste is degraded enough to be more safely restored. This requires smart engineering, land selection and ongoing trained staffing. Sanitary landfills are more expensive to maintain, meaning it’s easier for richer countries to invest in this infrastructure. Many poorer countries are more likely to have open dumpsites due to the high cost and resource investment of sanitary landfills. Read the full article for more info on sanitary landfills.

References and Useful Resources

EPA: Basic Information on Landfills

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control: How Landfills Work

Statista: Average Cost to Landfill Municipal Solid Waste in the United States in 2019 and 2020

World Bank: Trends in Solid Waste Management


How much do landfills affect the environment? ›

Environmental Impact of Landfills

Along with methane, landfills also produce carbon dioxide and water vapor, and trace amounts of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and non methane organic compounds. These gases can also contribute to climate change and create smog if left uncontrolled.

What is a landfill Why are landfills bad for the environment? ›

Although modern landfills are designed to keep toxic trash contained, leaks do happen. Therefore, landfills are still dangerous to the environment and human health. The methane that is released due to the decomposing waste is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change.

How much waste goes to landfill each year in the world? ›

Every year we dump a massive 2.12 billion tons of waste. If all this waste was put on trucks they would go around the world 24 times.

How harmful are landfills? ›

Landfills can produce objectionable odors and landfill gas can move through soil and collect in nearby buildings. Of the gases produced in landfills, ammonia, sulfides, methane, and carbon dioxide are of most concern. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are responsible for most of the odors at landfills.

What percent of waste is in landfills? ›

Currently, though, the majority (65.4 percent) of materials discarded by homes and businesses in the U.S. are ultimately dumped into landfills or burned in incinerators. The U.S. only composts and recycles about half that much material at 34.6 percent.

When did landfills become a problem? ›

Until the 1970s, trash went in manmade dumps, where it seeped into the ground and the water, turning into what's known as 'leachate' and released enormous amounts of methane into the air. As we now know, this was an environmental disaster.

How much pollution do landfills cause? ›

Methane Emissions from Landfills

Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 14.3 percent of these emissions in 2021.

Is landfills a cause of land pollution? ›

Contaminated surface water, leakage of industrial and landfill waste and sewage, rupture of underground hazardous materials storage, and acid rain can harm the soil as well.

Which country only send 1% of waste to a landfill? ›

Only 1% of Sweden's trash is sent to landfills. By burning trash, another 52% is converted into energy and the remaining 47% gets recycled. The amount of energy generated from waste alone provides heating to one million homes and electricity to 250,000.

What will happen with waste by 2050? ›

According to the latest report by the World Bank, by 2050, global waste generation is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tonnes per year. This means a 70% increase compared to 2016 levels. The growth of global municipal solid waste will mainly affect the poorest countries.

What are two main environmental issues associated with landfills? ›

The three most important problems with landfill are toxins, leachate and greenhouse gases.

What is the future of landfills? ›

The Future Landfill: Can New Technologies Make It Better and Safer? The future landfill may be a more highly instrumented facility that provides real-time feedback to its operator of its performance and status. This approach could help in reducing the potential for major failures, loss of productivity and loss of life.

Why is waste bad for the environment? ›

Trash can travel throughout the world's rivers and oceans, accumulating on beaches and within gyres. This debris harms physical habitats, transports chemical pollutants, threatens aquatic life, and interferes with human uses of river, marine and coastal environments.

Are landfills bad for climate change? ›

Food loss and waste also exacerbates the climate change crisis with its significant greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. Production, transportation, and handling of food generate significant Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions and when food ends up in landfills, it generates methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.

How much does landfill contribute to global warming? ›

Landfill waste – responsible for about 11% of global methane emissions – is expected to increase about 70% by 2050 as the global population continues to climb, according to the World Bank.

What happens when landfills are full? ›

Once a spot has been used as a landfill site and it fills up, it is covered over and compressed (again), and the area can be used for building. But it can't be opened up for landfill again.

What is the number one thing in landfills? ›

What is the Most Typical Material Encountered in Landfills in the United States? According to The World Counts, “paper accounts for around 26% of total waste at landfills“. The most common item found in MSW landfills is plain old paper. Newspapers alone can occupy up to 13% of landfill space in the United States.

Who has the biggest landfill? ›

The biggest landfill in the world is located in Las Vegas, Nevada. Currently, the Apex Regional Landfill covers approximately 2,200 acres of land. The landfill holds approximately 50 million tons of waste and is projected to have a lifetime of about 250 years.

What items end up in landfill most? ›

According to the US EPA, the material most frequently encountered in MSW landfills is plain old paper, it sometimes accounts for more than 40 percent of a landfill's contents. Newspapers alone can take up as much as 13 percent of the space in US landfills.

What are 2 facts about landfills? ›

Did You Know?
  • 13 million tons of textiles end up in U.S. landfills every year.
  • 37% of material going into our county landfill is compostable.
  • Last year, 194 tons of material put in county recycling were not recyclable.
  • We generate 9+ pounds of trash per person per day.

Will landfills ever run out? ›

Landfills can also suffer from subsidence and fail in other ways, though when they're properly constructed, this is rare. The biggest problem America faces with its landfills is that it's running out of them.

How deep is a landfill? ›

4 Layers: How Sanitary Landfills Work

To put it simply, sanitary landfills operate by layering waste in a large hole. The deepest spots can be up to 500 feet into the ground, like Puente Hills, where a third of Los Angeles County's garbage is sent.

What causes the most landfill? ›

Serious Causes of Landfills

Solid waste is the number one contributor of landfill waste disposal. Homes, schools, restaurants, public places, markets, offices and so on produce a great deal of rubbish, garbage and used materials. The bulk of these wastes eventually end up in the landfills.

How much of the world is landfills? ›

Globally, most waste is currently dumped or disposed of in some form of a landfill. Some 37 percent of waste is disposed of in some form of a landfill, 8 percent of which is disposed of in sanitary landfills with landfill gas collection systems.

How many landfills are in the US? ›

There are over 1,250 landfill facilities located in the United States, with the majority in Southern and Midwestern United States.

How do landfills affect the water? ›

Once in the landfill, chemicals can leach into the ground water by means of precipitation and sur- face runoff. New landfills are required to have clay or synthetic liners and leachate (liquid from a landfill containing contaminants) collection sys- tems to protect ground water.

What are the main causes of waste? ›

Major Causes of Solid Waste Pollution
  • Commercial establishments.
  • Residential houses.
  • Debris from construction and demolition.
  • Debris from roads (such as asphalt and scrap metal)
  • Scrap from vehicles.
  • Agriculture.
Dec 28, 2020

Do landfills affect air pollution? ›

Air pollutants emitted from waste management facilities include carbon monoxide, CO; oxides of nitrogen, NOX; sulphur dioxide, SO2; particulate matter, PM; and hydrocarbons, HC; which are majorly volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

What is a solution to landfills? ›

Recycling. Recycling is the most obvious alternative to sending waste to a landfill. A wide range of materials can be recycled at least to some degree, and recycling can even yield potential financial benefits.

How is landfill sustainable? ›

A truly sustainable landfill is one in which the waste materials are safely assimilated into the surrounding environment, whether or not they have been treated by biological, thermal or other processes, and which manages gas-related problems so as to minimize the environmental impact.

Where does US dump its waste? ›

1. Landfills. There are more than 3,000 active landfills in the U.S., and approximately 52% of our country's garbage ends up in one of them.

Where is the US largest landfill? ›

The Apex Regional Landfill in Las Vegas, United States covers about 2,200 acres of land and is the nations largest landfill site. It is projected to have a lifetime of 250 years and holds about 50 million tons of waste.

What country has no waste? ›

South Korea created its Waste Management Law in 1986, a practical step to achieving a no-waste country. The law focused on reducing the millions of tonnes of waste dumped at landfills. To reduce the high quantities of plastic in the garbage, the government banned the use of disposable plastic bags and containers.

Can we go zero waste? ›

The primary purpose of this lifestyle is a commitment to sending as little waste to landfills as possible. While it's impossible to create zero waste, there are many ways to reduce consumption that can benefit the planet.

Will be recycle by 2030? ›

At the 2020 America Recycles Summit, Administrator Wheeler announced EPA's first-ever National Recycling Goal to increase the national recycling rate to 50 percent by 2030.

How long does waste last? ›

But once it's in the landfill, it will take a really long time to decompose! How long? Between 450 and 600 years.

What are the weaknesses of landfills? ›

Hazardous chemicals, gases, and toxins seep from landfills, get mixed with soil and groundwater causing soil and water pollution. The infiltrated metals, ammonium, carbons, and other toxins make the soil lose its texture and naturality and kills aquatic flora and fauna.

How do landfills affect animals? ›

Certain animals may begin to rely on the landfill for food.

As predators learn to rely on landfills for food, the animals they once preyed on can grow unchecked, and their excessive population may begin wreaking havoc on both human existence and the natural ecosystem.

What are the two most common environmental problems? ›

Some of the key issues are:
  • Pollution. ...
  • Global warming. ...
  • Overpopulation. ...
  • Waste disposal. ...
  • Ocean acidification. ...
  • Loss of biodiversity. ...
  • Deforestation. ...
  • Ozone layer depletion.

What is the problem with landfills in the US? ›

According to a study by Columbia University, Americans trash seven pounds of material per person every single day—that's 2,555 pounds of material per American every year. A staggering 90 percent of all raw materials extracted in the U.S. are ultimately dumped into landfills or burned in incinerators.

What is the biggest problem in waste management? ›

Poor waste management - ranging from non-existing collection systems to ineffective disposal -causes air pollution, water and soil contamination. Open and unsanitary landfills contribute to contamination of drinking water and can cause infection and transmit diseases.

How can we solve waste problem? ›

Reduce Consumer Waste
  1. Replace single-use plastic packaging, bottles, and containers with reusable products or eliminate packaging when possible. ...
  2. Buy used clothing and household items.
  3. Repair, rather than replace, broken items.
  4. Learn more about how to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
Jul 14, 2022

Why is waste becoming a problem? ›

The more emissions that we produce due to how much trash we generate, affects us long term. One can develop diseases such as asthma, birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular disease, childhood cancer, COPD, infectious diseases, low birth weight, and preterm delivery.

What makes a landfill different than a dump? ›

Dumps allowed leachate to soak into the ground and contaminate the groundwater. Landfill liners prevent leachate from passing into groundwater. Modern landfills have leachate collection systems and the leachate is transported to treatment plants where clean water is produced and pollutants are removed.

What happens to food waste in landfills? ›

Reduces Methane from Landfills – When food goes to the landfill, the nutrients in the food never return to the soil. The wasted food rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

What percent of climate change is caused by landfills? ›

Landfill waste – responsible for about 11% of global methane emissions – is expected to increase about 70% by 2050 as the global population continues to climb, according to the World Bank.

How much waste will be in landfills by 2050? ›

In 2050, the world will generate 3.4 billion tonnes of waste per year. According to the latest report by the World Bank, by 2050, global waste generation is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tonnes per year. This means a 70% increase compared to 2016 levels.

Is it safe to live near a closed landfill? ›

As mentioned before, landfill sites emit poisonous gases such as Hydrogen Sulphide, which severely impacts respiratory organs and can cause lung cancer. Children are more at risk, with an 11 percent chance of being admitted to hospital for respiratory problems and a higher chance of 13 percent for asthma.

What happens if we reduce landfills? ›

By reducing our waste we can lessen the impact on our agriculture and freshwater locations. We can even lower the frequency of natural disasters that are affecting our communities internationally.

Why is landfill waste increasing? ›

This is due to a number of factors, such as population growth, urbanization, and economic growth, as well as consumer shopping habits. Every year, humans produce millions of tons of waste, and this is increasingly becoming a major issue worldwide.

Does landfill cause global warming? ›

Food loss and waste also exacerbates the climate change crisis with its significant greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. Production, transportation, and handling of food generate significant Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions and when food ends up in landfills, it generates methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.

What happens when all the landfills are full? ›

Former landfills are often repurposed into landfill-gas-to-energy sites. Generating power from captured landfill gas isn't new, and converted electricity is often fed back into the grid to power everything from our homes to our vehicles. There are also several solar panel fields installed on top of old landfills.

Why waste is a big problem? ›

Poorly managed waste is contaminating the world's oceans, clogging drains and causing flooding, transmitting diseases, increasing respiratory problems from burning, harming animals that consume waste unknowingly, and affecting economic development such as through tourism.

Which country only sends 1% waste to landfills? ›

Only 1% of Sweden's trash is sent to landfills. By burning trash, another 52% is converted into energy and the remaining 47% gets recycled.

How can we solve the problem of landfills? ›

What are some solutions to reduce waste in landfills?
  1. Donate clothes-donate clothes to people in need, shelters, or thrift stores.
  2. Reduce food waste-donate unused items for your pantry; save leftovers for the next meal.
  3. Buy things with less packaging or in bulk.
  4. Eliminate plastic bottle use-use reusable drinking containers.
May 10, 2021

Are landfills a good idea? ›

Landfills are bad for our health and environment. landfills, carrying with it toxic chemicals from our waste, ends up in our water supplies. Many communities surrounding landfills have had their drinking water contaminated by leaking landfills. A major source of methane.

What if everyone recycled? ›

So what would happen if everyone reused waste? According to the Aluminum Association, if everyone recycled one aluminum can, 295 million new aluminum cans could be produced. In addition, if everyone recycled just one can, it would be equivalent to reducing 6,750 passenger vehicles and saving 80% of energy.

What if everyone stopped recycling? ›

If everyone in the world stopped recycling, we would be up to our ears in no time in — you guessed it — garbage. Waste disposal has become a huge problem in many parts of the world. And here in the United States, we produce more garbage than practically anywhere else.


1. A Whale's Tale | Hope Works
(CBC Kids)
2. Superfoods and the environment - Avocados and blueberries from South America | DW Documentary
(DW Documentary)
3. Meet the brothers taking charge of trash in India | Scenes
(Euronews Culture)
4. OzHarvest – Food Waste Explained
5. The true cost of fast fashion
(The Economist)
6. Toxic Cost of Going Green | Unreported World
(Unreported World)


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