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When materials reach the end of their lifecycles, what becomes of them?
Unfortunately, they’re usually thrown away. Although there are a wide variety of sustainable solutions that drive waste reuse and recycling efforts, all too often—especially in the United States—materials are simply discarded. They get sent to a landfill, get buried in the ground and get left there indefinitely. Why? Because seemingly, it’s the cheapest, easiest option. Something that, after a little digging, businesses and communities are realizing couldn’t be further from the truth.
While landfills may appear to be a quick fix for disposal challenges, the reality is that their true costs unearth themselves over time. What may be “out of sight, out of mind” for some, is simply a case of “out of sight, out of mind for now.” Landfill disposal’s heavy price will inevitably be paid sooner or later.
So, what is at stake? While there are a great variety of direct and indirect impacts that landfills have on their surroundings and the businesses and communities that contribute to them, there are some key environmental and financial concerns that commonly rise above the rest.
Soil and waterway contamination is one of the most notable impacts of landfills.
When waste is put into the earth, its pollutants absorb into the surrounding soil and waterways much more efficiently than it would under other circumstances. To no surprise, the longer these materials sit there, the higher the area’s pollutant concentration becomes, the more likely that blight is to spread farther. And landfilled waste has plenty of time of sit there. Depending on the materials in question, landfilled waste can have a lifespan of 100 years or more before it decomposes—and that doesn’t even account for certain chemicals that can persist well beyond decomposition.
What’s more, a sizable portion of waste materials contain toxic substances that can impact their surroundings on a far shorter timescale. Electronics, medical gear and pharmaceuticals are all good examples of common waste items that can be hazardous when improperly disposed of. Electronics, in addition to their other risks, contain toxic components, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, barium and lithium, that make up more than 70% of the heavy metals found in landfills; plastic waste also has its share of these pollutants, coupled with phthalates, bisphenols, and fluorinated compounds; and pharmaceuticals can have any number of chemicals that range in danger when put through unintended conditions.
Any combination of these materials festering in a landfill can adversely affect plant and animal health, including human health. When waste breaks down in the landfill and water filters through that waste, typically due to rainfall, a toxic, foul-smelling liquid called leachate forms. Leachate can then enter the water cycle, absorb into plants and animals and enter the food chain, and in some cases, directly enter communities by way of leakage, runoff or overflow—risks that are significant and get greater over time, especially as sea levels rise and the frequencies and intensities of storms increase.
The rise in sea levels and increase in storm frequencies and intensities are the unintended consequences of climate change. As are the temperature swings, weather pattern changes and upticks in natural disasters. Greenhouse gases are major contributors to this planetary shift and landfills are major generators of those greenhouse gases.
When waste breaks down in an oxygen-free environment, such as a landfill, it produces methane, which is extremely unstable when allowed to collect underground. More significantly, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG), one that absorbs heat and radiation at a much higher level than CO2.
The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Global Warming Potentials (GWP), a system designed to rank and compare the potency of different GHGs, places methane at 27 to 30 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2 over a hundred-year period. Over a twenty-year period—a timeframe widely considered pivotal to combating the worst effects of climate change—methane is shown to be 84 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2.
Landfills, which are considered super-emitters by NASA, release 4.6 million tons of this gas into the atmosphere every year from the United States alone. The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report shows that methane pollution is responsible for more than a quarter of today’s global warming. NPR reports that landfills are the world’s third-largest source of methane. What’s crazy is that despite these high figures, aerial surveys of landfills in California conducted by the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Scientific Aviation have found landfills leaking methane at six times the levels they report to the EPA. And that was in California—a state with notoriously stringent environmental standards to begin with. It’s no wonder methane is swiftly, yet quietly, pushing the planet’s climate toward a breaking point.
If the contamination and greenhouse gases produced by landfilled waste weren’t enough, another problem lies in the fact that the waste causing that pollution could have been used as a resource for other products or systems. Instead, these materials indefinitely sit in the ground and exacerbate today’s environmental challenges. According to the EPA, approximately 26 million tons of plastic, 17 million tons of paper and 14 million tons of metal (in addition to a number of other valuable materials) get buried and rendered useless in the U.S. annually.
To go a step further, there are also missed opportunities as they pertain to renewable power generation and alternative fuel creation. While it’s true that some landfills have gas capture technology to generate electricity, the reality is that these systems are currently leaky and inefficient, especially when compared to other energy recovery processes, like composting, anaerobic digestion or waste-to-energy. These more modern solutions have far higher operational standards and are meticulously monitored in comparison. Additionally, with waste-to-energy in particular, recyclable materials can be thoroughly recovered before unsalvageable waste is safely converted into steam and electricity. Even the ash from that process can be recycled into components for manufacturing and building materials.
In a similar vein that is adjacent to energy recovery, many of these unsalvageable materials can instead be processed into alternative fuels, which are just as powerful as traditional fossil fuels, but reduce the need for mining and consuming them. Air emission studies have shown that sulfur, mercury, and carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 50% or more compared to coal usage, whereas the methane avoided from the waste that is being processed is even more significant. Plus, 100% of the residual ash generated from conversion is incorporated into the finished product of such fuels.
The fact that landfills take up a lot of space is perhaps their most obvious problem. It’s one of the many reasons why they’re not as prevalent in European countries where cities are condensed and the lands beyond are limited. A less obvious problem is what that means in the grander scheme of how space is planned and used.
To make a landfill a landfill, a significant cost must be paid. For one to exist, a plot of land must be sacrificed entirely, destroying natural animal habitats and/or forsaking the chance for it to become something useful and desirable to an ecosystem or community. Examples on the side of the environment include nature sanctuaries or parks; on the side of society, there’s the potential for housing, businesses and other green or neighborhood spaces that don’t devalue what surrounds it. This is contrary to the additive nature of what some other waste management solutions can provide when handled creatively.
But what is particularly concerning is that as society inevitably produces waste, landfills must continually expand for them to “work” as intended. And because waste that is buried in a landfill has that “100 years or more” lifespan, their growth demand vastly outpaces the rate at which their materials will degrade and offer up space for newly discarded ones. Ultimately, this fans the flames of a destructive kind of growth cycle. Existing landfills must get bigger. New landfills must get plotted. And sure enough, the aforementioned problems with land and waterway contamination, greenhouse gas generation and resource stagnation must worsen as a natural result.
As concerns over the future of the planet abound, businesses and communities must examine their current waste and resource management habits and look to better solutions.
Landfills, though common and seemingly convenient, offer little assistance in the fight against climate change or the journey toward more sustainable, efficient ways of operating. The truth is landfills hinder those efforts. They contaminate their surroundings, emit powerful and exorbitant amounts of greenhouse gases, stagnate finite resources and consume land—costs that feed back into and reinforce its many other environmental, social and commercial issues.
In today’s world, where the stakes for a prosperous future have never been higher, these problems are too big to ignore. Landfill disposal’s impacts must be mitigated, and its alternatives must be prioritized if there are any hopes of achieving tangible, near-term and long-lasting progress toward sustainability.
To learn more about the true cost of landfill disposal and the bottom-line benefits of avoiding it, download our zero waste-to-landfill eBook.
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