What Happens in a Landfill Stays in a Landfill ~ The secret about garbage
I’m not sure how many conversations it’s been, but at least every single person I’ve talked to about landfills is under the impression that landfills are a giant compost pile. The common belief is that whatever you throw out will eventually break down and decompose – no harm no foul. I even talked to one person who said that it was good to put organic things in the garbage to help the other things break down.
The only problem is that they don’t work that way at all. Landfills are actually designed to prevent decomposition and to keep the materials they contain as stable as possible. This is not fringe science either – anything you read about landfills will talk about this, including documentation provided by municipal landfill operators themselves.
Why are landfills designed to prevent decomposition?
The short answer is ironically, to prevent pollution. Landfills produce two major byproducts – leachate is the fluid that is produced after water and other fluids filter through a landfill to the bottom, and methane is the gaseous byproduct that is released at the top of the landfill as a result of anaerobic decomposition.
The problem with leachate
Technically speaking leachate is any fluid that leaches out of anything, but in the landfill world it specifically refers to any fluid that has made it’s way through the landfill to the bottom where it is pumped out for special wastewater treatment.
The decomposition process has a lot to do with what’s decomposing. In a home compost situation where you can control what’s being put in it (e.g. only organic materials such as food scraps) then you know that there are no heavy metals or inherently toxic materials. You will have leachate as a byproduct – if you compost it on the ground it simply leaches into the soil (which makes for very happy grass around the compost pile) or if your compost is in a container, you’ll siphon off the leachate and dilute it as a fertilzer for plants.
Landfill leachate is entirely different. Because practically speaking people can put whatever they want in a landfill, the leachate that’s created contains heavy metals, plastics and ammonia. Treating and removing the run off can be difficult (click here for reference). To learn more about leachate, click here.
The problem with landfill gas emissions
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills produce gas emissions that are 50% carbon dioxide and 50% methane. They are the third largest source of human related methane emissions. Surprisingly, carbon dioxide is not the major concern here. Rather, methane is the much greater concern because it’s 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period (click here for reference).
Compost on the other hand, is created via aerobic processes. Aerobic conditions produce little methane because methane-producing bacteria require anaerobic conditions to thrive (click here for reference).
In 2013, 560 our of 1300 US landfills burned methane as a natural gas since it burns much cleaner than other sources. However, only 1/3 of the gas released by a landfill is actually recovered for use. In the remaining 740 landfills, all of the gas was released directly into the atmosphere. (click here for reference)
Are we sure things don’t break down in landfills?
Yes. Dr. William Rathje was an archaeologist by training who took excavation practices used for ancient cultures and turned them toward the more recent past to excavate landfills. He found materials completely mummified. According to this article, “Items like hot dogs and lettuce that had been entombed for years looked as if they had just been recently thrown out. Decades-old newspapers were still intact and readable.” Basically anything that you put in a landfill stays there indefinitely.
More Reasons Why Landfills are Very Bad
By keeping solid waste in as stable a state as possible, we prevent further pollution of our air and groundwater. But it’s far from ideal. Burying resources like aluminum and plastics that don’t make it to our waste recovery stream and burying organic materials that could be used as fertilizers for our soil is a bad move. Think of it like burying water, or food, or money.
It’s also not sustainable. Eventually we’ll run out of space. The US constitutes 5% of the world’s population but produces 30% of the garbage. We are consuming far more than our fair share and for what? Convenience?
But here’s a zero waste question – is spending money on disposable things that we have to buy and then throw out truly convenient? Our family has stopped buying disposable razors, disposable menstrual products, disposable diapers, single use batteries, toilet paper, new clothes and shoes, play doh, markers, perler beads, and so many other things. Our bank account is happier, and honestly, so are we. So much less shopping, so much less dealing with garbage. Many of the things we consume we consume because we’ve been marketed to for generations and we don’t even question whether we need the things we buy.
Other developing nations have shown that reducing landfill usage is well within our grasp (click here) but it will require a pretty significant change in social perceptions.
Things you can do
- Buy less. Everyone, specifically in the US can buy less and when you buy less, you have less to throw away. Instead of thinking “this shiny thing will make me happy” ask yourself, “how am I going to get rid of this when I’m done using it?” For me this question drastically changes what I buy.
- Compost. According to the EPA, 35% of waste headed to a landfill is organic materials (click here for reference). Minimally, everyone with a back yard can start composting (and those in smaller spaces can check out bokashi composting or vermicomposting). We’ve found that much of our waste is food scraps and that by composting alone we were able to reduce our waste considerably. Composting is easy to do, and because decomposition reduces bulk considerably, you usually only need a small container and it will continue to break down over time. We also communally need to put pressure on municipalities to create municipal composting programs to divert organic materials away from landfills.
- Boycott bottled water. Bottled water is a huge source of plastics pollution and is not regulated so is less safe than tap water. Bring your own water bottle with you and you’ve just been awesome to the environment.
- Avoid buying produce wrapped in plastic and shop at local farmers markets when you can (and bring your own bags). Let grocery stores know you want unwrapped produce.
- Don’t use single use straws. Either skip the straw entirely or bring your own reusable straw.