This mesmerizing map illustrates a century of landfills.

(SaveOn Energy)

Widely considered to be the first sanitary landfill in the U.S., the Fresno garbage dump, which opened in 1937, has the dubious distinction of being named to both the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and the nation’s list of Superfund sites. That’s a funny pair of categories to straddle, but it illustrates an important point: Trash is a starring character in the American story, even as we continue to wrestle with its consequences.

Sometimes, trash can be an anthropologist’s goldmine. Unearthing garbage can illuminate the patterns of daily life. And a new interactive map by the electricity company SaveOn Energy charts America’s ballooning trash habits over the course of the past century. Using EPA data, the map reveals a lot about how much we throw away, and where.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were just a handful of landfills, clustered mostly on the country’s coasts; those appear as little green pinpricks on the map. Green dots are landfills that have since shut down; red ones signal operations that are still running. The map turns redder as the years march on—and a growing population disposes of more and more waste.

The map really starts to blaze toward the middle of the century. That’s when landfills started to proliferate around the U.S., thanks in part to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, which created a federal office tasked with managing trash. By the mid-1970s, states were mandated to put some regulations in place. Landfills became more numerous, and they got larger, too. On the map, the larger circles denote more sprawling landfills. The largest dumps approach 1,620 acres.

Today, Nevada’s landfills are clogged with 38.4 tons of waste per resident—the highest share in the country. Idaho, on the other hand, tosses the least: a comparably scant 4.1 tons of trash per person.

In addition to volume, the composition of our garbage has changed over the past century. Consumers shed obsolete electronics at a rate that would have been unimaginable a few generations ago.

But we might be nearing the brink of boomeranging in the other direction, as states double down on recycling and promote “zero waste” practices. Those red dots might, eventually, flicker and dim.

Play around with the map and see other relevant infographics here.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Bicycle riders on a package-blocked bicycle lane
    Perspective

    Why Do Micromobility Advocates Have Tiny-Demand Syndrome?

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  2. a photo of a WeWork office building
    Life

    What WeWork’s Demise Could Do to NYC Real Estate

    The troubled coworking company is the largest office tenant in New York City. What happens to the city’s commercial real estate market if it goes under?

  3. A photo of an abandoned building in Providence, Rhode Island.
    Perspective

    There's No Such Thing as a Dangerous Neighborhood

    Most serious urban violence is concentrated among less than 1 percent of a city’s population. So why are we still criminalizing whole areas?

  4. Life

    Why Do Instagram Playgrounds Keep Calling Themselves Museums?

    The bustling industry of immersive, Instagram-friendly experiences has put a new spin on the word museum.

  5. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

×