Waste in Place: Let’s Look at Some Trash (Data) by Kevin O’Rourke

Posted Tue, 6/15/2021 - 8:10am by  |  Category: ,

A few months ago, the New York Times published one of the most arresting wildlife stories I’ve ever read.

The story itself—about efforts to save the dwindling population of greater adjutant storks—was sensitive and well-done. But, and I assure you that it pains me as a writer to admit this, what really made the story were the pictures that accompanied it. For example.

See, roughly 80% of the world’s population of greater adjutants (~1,000) lives in India’s state of Assam, and the Boragon landfill—which abuts the Deepor Beel wetland, to the southwest of Assam’s largest city, Guwahati—is frequented by many of the area’s huge storks, scavenging for food among the trash. Here’s footage of the birds in action. Obviously, the image of anyone or anything scavenging in a landfill is gripping, especially an endangered species like the greater adjutant. But what really got me was all of the plastic in the images.

Plastic is, to paraphrase Norman Mailer, an old pal of mine: I’ve been writing about my discomfort with plastic for years now. And stories about endangered animals that live among plastic trash don’t help my already-present plastic-queasiness. Thinking about the storks—not to mention the cows and the people—among those hills of trash, discarded plastic bags and dirty wrappers, with smells just everywhere, made me very uncomfortable.

It also made me curious: what does trash data look like? Can a better understanding of trash data lead to less discomfort, or at least other stories to tell (which one can use to win hearts and minds)?

A good place to start is the EPA; US government websites are extremely rich sources of all sorts of data. Specifically, the EPA’s National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling offers an excellent overview of the state of US trash, while the agency’s Landfill Technical Data page includes a data-stuffed Excel file of, you guessed it, landfill data. What sort of things can one learn from each page? Here’s a small sample:

  • In 2018, the United States generated 292.4 million tons of “municipal solid waste” (MSW)—which term comprises things that may be composted, recycled, or landfilled, but “does not include everything that may be landfilled at the local level, such as construction and demolition (C&D) debris, municipal wastewater sludge, and other non-hazardous industrial wastes.”
    • This works out to 4.9 pounds of waste per person per day.
      • !!!
  • Of the MSW generated in 2018, about 24% was recycled and roughly 50%—nearly 150 million tons (!!!)—was put into landfills.
  • According to the EPA’s landfill-level data only, there are more than 2600 landfills in the United States, of which roughly half are considered closed.
  • The largest landfill in the country, in terms of “waste in place” is the Puente Hills landfill outside of Los Angeles, with more than 142 million tons of waste.

Meanwhile, what about data on plastic? Again, the EPA is a good place to start—the agency’s Plastics: Material-Specific Data page includes facts about plastic (how much was generated, recycled, and tossed in landfills not unlike Boragon) between 1960 and 2018. For plastic pollution specifically, Our World in Data—an almost unbelievable source for data of all kinds—publishes a page conveniently titled Plastic Pollution. Here are some findings from both sources:

  • In 1960, 390,000 tons of plastic were produced in the United States; in 2018, about 35.5 million tons of plastic were generated.
  • In 1960, 100% of the plastic generated was landfilled, where in 2018 75.6% of the plastic generated ended up in a landfill. 8.7% of 2018 plastic was recycled.
  • In 2010, China and the US generated the most plastic waste, at 59.08 and 37.83 million tonnes, respectively.
    • Note that Our World in Data is based at Oxford University, so the metric system applies!
  • In 2019, the Philippines emitted by far the most plastic waste to the ocean: 356,371 tonnes.
    • Per capita in 2019, the top three plastic-to-ocean emitters were the Philippines (3.3 kg/person), Suriname (2.89 kg/person), and Trinidad and Tobago (2.55 kg/person).

Already you can see the storytelling—or at least further digging—possibilities that data like this offers. What, I wonder, does the Puente Hills landfill look like now, since its closure in 2013? Why does so much plastic from the Philippines end up in the ocean (aside of course from the fact that the Philippines are surrounded by ocean)? Can you even imagine what the world would be like without plastic?

And on & on. For more, take my class this summer on using data to create narratives. I promise, it won’t be all trash data, all the time! But to close, here’s a Matmos song made with plastic.


Kevin O’Rourke lives in Philadelphia, where he works in publishing and writes about science. His first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle, was published by Tinderbox Editions; he is currently working on several follow-up projects, including a book about surviving suicide.

Other writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Kenyon Review, and Think Global Health, among others. Learn more at kforourke.com.