What if the U.S. put all its trash in one giant landfill?


Landfills are located all over the world. There's even one in the Pacific Ocean. See more ­recycling pictures.

Right now in the United States there are landfills everywhere. However, it's getting harder and harder to create new landfills because no one wants to live near them. So, what if the U.S. were to create one gigantic landfill in a remote part of the country and start filling it with all of the municipal trash that America generates every day? How big would this landfill have to be?

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Depending on which part of the country a person lives in and where the information is coming from, estimates are that an average person in the U.S. produces something like three to four pounds of trash per day. That trash comes from all sorts of things: used food containers (bottles, cans, and pizza boxes), old newspapers and magazines, worn-out clothing, worn-down carpet, used-up batteries, broken appliances and toys. Styrofoam cups and packing material, junk mail, disposable diapers … you name it.

From a landfill perspective, it's not so much the weight of the trash as it is the volume of trash that matters. Things like Styrofoam, crumpled-up paper, and empty bottles and cans take up a lot of space for their weight. In other words, trash is very light for its volume, relatively speaking. Water weighs one gram per cubic centimeter. A trash bag full of trash easily floats on water. So let's pick an average density for trash of 0.33 grams per cubic centimeter. Finally, let's assume that there are 300 million people living in the United States.

This means that, in one year, 300 million people, each producing 3.5 pounds of trash per day, create something like 18,433,779,281 cubic feet of trash, which is a lot. If you made the pile 400 feet deep (as tall as a 40-story building), it would cover more than 1,000 acres of land.

If there was only one giant landfill, haulers would only have to go to one place to drop off all of their trash.
If there was only one giant landfill, haulers would only have to go to one place to drop off all of their trash.

If you keep filling up this landfill for 100 years, and if you assume that during this time the populations of the United States doubles, then the landfill will cover about 160,000 acres, or 250 or so square miles, with trash 400 feet deep.

Here's another way to think about it. The Great Pyramid in Egypt is 756 feet by 756 feet at the base and is 481 feet tall, and anyone who has seen it in real life knows that it's a huge thing -- one of the biggest things ever built by man. If you took all the trash that the United States would generate in 100 years and piled it up in the shape of the Great Pyramid, it would be about 32 times bigger. So the base of this trash pyramid would be about 4.5 miles by 4.5 miles, and the pyramid would rise almost 3 miles high.

That's a lot of trash!