Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
This mesmerizing map illustrates a century of landfills.
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.
Play around with the map and see other relevant infographics here.