Economic Thought Question – What if we eliminated Landfills?

by Marshall Brain

Today’s thought question involves landfills:

What would be the economic effect if we completely eliminated landfills and recycled everything?

Large-scale municipal landfills are a relatively new invention. The first modern sanitary landfill was created in Fresno, California in 1937 [ref]. Today there are thousands of active landfills all over the United States. Each American creates approximately 4.4 pounds of trash every day, and a majority of it ends up being buried in a landfill somewhere.

We pay for all those landfills through our property taxes. A typical landfill costs $20 million or more to build, plus millions of dollars per year to operate. In most cases, all of that money comes from local taxpayers.

You can see the effects that landfills have on our thinking nearly everywhere you go. For example, if you buy a pancake breakfast at McDonald’s, you will throw away:

  • the top and bottom of the Styrofoam container that holds the pancakes
  • a plastic syrup container and its foil top
  • a plastic butter container and its plastic top
  • a paper cup
  • a plastic lid
  • a plastic straw
  • a plastic fork
  • a plastic knife
  • a plastic bag that held the fork and knife
  • some used napkins
  • the paper tray liner.

That’s one meal for one person, and it all ends up in the landfill. Everything from disposable diapers to plastic soda bottles ends up there as well.

Here is one way to look at a landfill: A landfill is a place where we dump the trash we create as we live our lives. Here is another way: Landfills are a form of corporate welfare. Think about it — Nearly every single product that ends up in a landfill comes from a corporation. A corporation makes a product, and then “society” pays for the end-cycle cost of the product by building a public landfill. Landfills take corporate disposal costs away from corporations and transfer them to “society”.

Here’s the important question we will explore today: What if we eliminate landfills and make corporations pay for the end-cycle cost of all the products they create? None of us wants landfills scattered all over the countryside. Every time a municipality tries to site a new landfill it is a major problem because no one wants to live near one. Landfills look bad, they smell bad and they are time bombs. Many landfills will create gigantic clean-up problems in the future as they start to leak toxic waste (oil, mercury, lead, cadmium, etc.) into groundwater. “Society” will end up paying cleanup costs as we do with many other SuperFund sites. There is no reason to keep creating these toxic time bombs.

Changing the Rules

What if we simply change the rules? What would happen if we say to corporations, “There will be no new landfills — it is time for each corporation to clean up its own mess.”?

Things would change in the marketplace very quickly. Prices in stores would need to reflect the full lifecycle costs of each product, so products would be redesigned with the thought of complete recycling in mind. In the process, many products would actually get cheaper. Right now, corporations design their products knowing that they are headed for the landfill. Under the new rules, corporations would focus their efforts on designing for recyclability and they would find ways to make recycling inexpensive or even profitable. Over the course of five to ten years, the marketplace would sort out the winners and losers and we would have a recyclable, landfill-free society. All by changing one rule.

Consider this example. Right now, most fast food restaurants design all of their packaging knowing that it will go to a landfill. Employees at fast food restaurants carry millions of bags of trash out to the dumpster every year for the trash truck to pick up. In a landfill-free society, the bags of trash would all be reprocessed instead. Fast food restaurants would take this new reality into account and they would design their packaging knowing that it will be reprocessed. The restaurants would pay for the reprocessing.

In the grand scheme of things, what difference does it make to fast food restaurant whether the trash goes to a landfill or a reprocessing center? To the fast food restaurant it means nothing. But to the community it means a lot. It means there is no need to have a landfill.

It is possible that reprocessing a restaurant’s trash will be more expensive than sending the trash to a landfill. In that case, the price of a hamburger goes up a penny. It is possible that reprocessing costs less because all the new packaging can use the reprocessed materials. In that case, the price of a hamburger drops a penny. It would make absolutely no difference to anyone, and we would be rid of all the trash that fast food restaurants dump into landfills today.

Or consider disposable diapers. They actually have a lot of benefits. When you compare disposable diapers to cloth diapers, disposables use less energy because you have to heat water and drive motors to wash a cloth diaper. Less energy means less air pollution from a power plant. Disposable diapers also use much less water, and they produce less sewage. [ref] Overall, disposable diapers would be a win if it were not for the landfill space they consume — The U.S. generates something like 350 million tons of used disposable diapers every year. [ref]

If the rule were “No landfills,” the disposable diaper manufacturers would have to come up with a solution for the end-cycle. For example, they might make their diapers completely compostable. Then they would create a company that collects the compostable diapers in each community, composts them and sells the compost to greenhouses and gardeners. This company would probably make a profit. By eliminating the crutch that landfills create for corporations, they might actually start making money off of all the stuff we dump into landfills today.

 If corporations had to pay for handling the trash that they create, then the end-cycle costs of products would be embedded into the product price. Suddenly, the cleanest companies would win in the marketplace because they would have the lowest prices. 

The part that is most interesting about a landfill-free society is the effect it would have on the corporate mindset. Right now, with free landfills handling all of the end-cycle costs for their products, corporations try to move as many of their costs as possible to the end-cycle. What this means is that the dirtiest companies win. If corporations had to pay for handling the trash that they create, then the end-cycle costs of products would be embedded into the product price. Suddenly, the cleanest companies would win in the marketplace because they would have the lowest prices.

When a consumer is through with a product, be it a milk jug, a battery, a disposable diaper, a car, a tire, a computer, shingles on the roof, carpet on the floor — any product — it should be the manufacturer’s responsibility to recycle it. This change in mindset would have two big benefits. First, we would stop creating new landfills and in the process eliminate a large enviromental problem from our communities. Second, we would allow the cleanest companies to win in the marketplace, rather than the dirtiest. In the process, everyone would benefit.


Since this article was published, I have received a number of emails and comments stating the following sentiment in one way or another:

“You still have the problem of having a pile of trash at home, and sorting it out, and taking each company’s material back to them, etc.”

Why should consumers/communities have to pay for and worry about the disposal of all of this trash that corporations are generating? There is no need for consumers to do any of the sorting. Consumers can put all their trash, unsorted, into bags and put it out at the curb. All of this trash would go to a local reprocessing center rather than the landfill. Manufacturers would fund the reprocessing centers rather than the local communities. (Or local communities can run them and bill manufacturers).

How is the trash sorted at the reprocessing center? Just about every product and every piece of packaging already has information printed on it — warning labels (e.g. almost any plastic bag), recycle codes, disposal instructions, etc. The manufacturer can simply print its name/barcode on each piece of packaging. Or, in the near future, the manufacturer can embed an RFID tag in each piece of packaging. In the not-too-distant future, we will have robots with vision systems to do all the sorting.

The point is, things like sorting and identifying are small implementation details. The key goal is the elimination of the landfills, because there is no social benefit to creating a landfill. Landfills look bad, they smell bad and they are toxic time bombs. There is no reason why communities should be burying millions of tons of toxic waste near urban areas every year. With one simple change — a law that says ‘no new landfills’ — we can eliminate landfills completely.

The Official Site for Marshall Brain