Recent trends are showing that governments are reluctant to approve additional landfills or incinerations due to environmental concerns, increased regulatory restrictions and also due to the fact that people simply do not want to live next of a landfill. With more landfills closing than opening, there are fewer and larger landfills and they are located farther away from population centers. As a result, the United States is today on track to having only 18 years of remaining landfill capacity left. While the landfills get scarcer, it is expected that the pricing power of those who own the landfills will increase.8 It is not surprising that some waste management companies have increased the price for landfill disposal at an average rate of 3.4% from 2015 to 2019. However, we think in the long run these businesses have to adapt to a society that is more focused on recycling and to new disposal methods becoming economically viable through government support or innovation.
Incineration is the process of burning waste to dispose of it by reducing its mass and volume. Its aim is to reduce the solid mass of the original waste by 80%–85% and the volume (already compressed somewhat in garbage trucks) by 95%–96%, depending on the composition and degree of recovery of materials such as metals from the ash for recycling. While incineration does not completely replace the landfills, it significantly reduces the disposal volume. Many incineration plants are waste-to-energy plants where the waste is burnt to drive turbines and to create electricity. Since the year 2000 the numbers of incinerators in the US have been falling from over 100 to currently 73.9 In our opinion, it is rather unlikely to see a significant increase in incinerator capacity over the next couple of years.
Recycling has increased in popularity, as environmental concerns have risen over the past years and consumers are becoming more aware of the importance of sustainable solutions. It is viewed as an alternative to "conventional" waste disposal that reduces waste volumes and helps lower greenhouse gas emissions. The largest recycled material is cardboard, with other materials consisting primarily of plastic, metals and glass. Recycling can prevent the waste of potentially useful materials and reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials. Solid waste companies operate material recovery facilities, where reusable materials from the waste stream are separated for processing or resale.
While recycling has grown as a proportion of waste disposal, fig. 4 shows that it has somewhat stagnated in recent years. Probably this has been driven by a combination of factors such as lack of consumer awareness.10 It seems many consumers still do not understand what can and cannot be recycled, or the importance of best practice in recycling.11 Clearly, recycling is preferable to landfill or incineration.12 However, in some areas such as medical or hazardous waste, we think permanent waste disposal remains the preferred solution.