Landfill with truckYale University researchers estimate 230 million metric tons of MSW were landfilled in the U.S. in 2015, nearly twice the estimate from federal officials.

A study published by the Journal of Industrial Ecology pulls from multiple data sources to calculate weights of different materials landfilled. It was conducted by Jon T. Powell and Marian R. Chertow, both from the Yale Center for Industrial Ecology.

It estimates landfill weights in 2015 for a number of materials (all weights are in metric tons): paper (63 million tons), food scraps (35 million tons), plastic (32 million tons), textiles (10 million tons) and electronics (3.5 million tons). The estimates are far larger than those produced by the U.S. EPA, which uses a different methodology to arrive at disposal numbers. But the researchers estimates for metals and glass disposal were relatively close to EPA estimates.

The researchers’ total 2015 landfill calculation, 230 million metric tons of municipal solid waste, is far larger than the EPA’s number for 2015: 124 million metric tons.

For their study, the researchers used a new model to estimate disposal weights. According to their report, it triangulates measurements spanning 1,161 landfills and 15,169 solid waste samples collected and analyzed at 222 sites across the U.S.

“The model provides major advances in the accuracy of estimates of just what types of waste are being created and where they end up,” said Reid Lifset, industrial ecology research scientist at Yale and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

In contrast, the EPA uses what’s called a materials flow methodology that relies on a mass balance approach. It relies on data gathered from industry associations, businesses and government agencies, supplemented by waste characterizations and research reports from governments, industry or the press.

The researchers estimated total landfill costs at $10.7 billion, or about $47 a metric ton. They put a number to how much the lost paper, plastic and metal commodities may have been worth: $1.4 billion. And they estimated landfill methane emissions were 14 percent greater than the U.S. government’s estimate.

Last week, E-Scrap News, sister publication to Resource Recycling, looked closer at the electronics-specific data.

Powell was involved in earlier research, published in 2016, that estimated total U.S. landfill disposal and compared it with EPA estimates. It found that 262 million metric tons were sent to U.S. landfill in 2012, compared with the EPA’s estimate of 122 million metric tons.

Photo credit: Huguette Roe/Shutterstock

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