Americans are sending much more trash to landfills than federal agencies estimated – twice as much, according to a new study.

Staten Island landfill. Image via Wiki Commons.

The average American tosses on average 2.3 kilograms (five pounds) of trash every day – that’s non-recycled thrash that simply ends up in landfills. Researchers at Yale University looked at the records for more than 1,200 landfills and calculated amounts, which came out to be significantly higher than what the EPA estimated. They found that 263 million metric tons (289 million tons) were dumped in 2012, while the EPA reported 123 million metric tons (135 million tons) for the same year. Jon Powell at Yale’s Center for Industrial Ecology said this difference comes from the way the garbage was calculated: adding up actual measurements instead of estimates and reports from different organizations.

If this study is correct, then it doesn’t only mean that Americans are creating more trash than previously thought, but it also means that they recycle less than estimated. EPA estimated that Americans recycled 34.5 percent of their waste in 2012, but if Powell’s data is correct, then they only recycle 21.4 percent – that’s a big difference.

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The reception for this study has been positive, with many scientists trusting Powell’s data more than the EPA’s, but Thomas Kinnaman, a Bucknell University professor who studies the economics of solid waste and recycling said that the findings don’t change much, because landfills have plenty of room to expand. Still, I feel that having an accurate picture on how much garbage people are generating and how much is actually being recycled is important.

Americans generate more trash than other countries, but the figures are comparable to those of the developed world. This study was partly funded by the EPA.

Journal Reference: Jon T. Powell, Timothy G. Townsend & Julie B. Zimmerman – Estimates of solid waste disposal rates and reduction targets for landfill gas emissions. Nature Climate Change (2015) doi:10.1038/nclimate2804