Landfills – Wall-e Wastelands or a Productive Paradise?

1In the critically acclaimed animated 2008 film Wall-e brilliant writing coupled with imaginative foresight gave audiences a look into what Disney Pixar believed to be the potential future of our planet. Skyscrapers of trash, rubble and devoid of life, our planet was desolate save for the little robot whose job it was to oversee sorting and managing remaining trash and waste long after the humans had departed. What did this wasteland remind most audience members of? A landfill.

They couldn’t be further from the truth.

The majority of Americans believe two things:

  1. Landfills to be dirty, trash filled wastelands where seagulls soar overhead mountains of trash and rubble pushed into a hole by a bulldozer
  2. Landfills are areas devoid of life and are extremely problematic to the environment.

Simply put, Americans are wrong.

Today’s landfills are high tech, carefully constructed facilities that separate trash from the terrestrial or ground environment either by clay or a plastic barrier. This dumps the theory that landfills are, well…. dumps. In part, the stigma behind landfills stems from a large misunderstanding the general public has due to decades upon decades of negative propaganda largely stemming from the media and marketing companies catering to the customer’s feelings instead of the facts.  Perpetual coverage in the media regarding stories surrounding landfills create the perception of a risk instead of encouraging viewers to uncover the actual facts.

A great example of sensationalism in the media with respect to landfills comes from the Long Island garbage barge situation of 1987. In short, a garbage barge shipping thirty-two hundred tons (yes, tons) or garbage was continuously turned away at each destination. Americans were worried. Was there not anymore space left in landfills? The media caught on and began to prey on fear and programs to divert trash away from landfills were created through the recycling program.

The idea behind recycling was an admirable one, but today statistics show that when we look at the generation of plastic products versus recovery there is a very real imbalance. Although people are recycling, too much municipal solid waste is being generated every year and plastics end up in the landfill rather than diverted. The EPA reports that Americans generate trash at an astonishing rate of 4.6 pounds (2.1 kilograms) per day, per person. This ends up in 251 million tons per year which is almost twice as much trash per person as most any other country. Even more astonishingly, these numbers have tripled in the last fifty years! Essentially we are recycling more than we were in 1960, but not enough to keep up with the growing rate of trash generated per American per year.

 

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Figure 1.1 Generation, Recycling and Disposal statistics Marcblogs.org

What about the environmental impact of landfills? What about emissions, waste and pollution?

I’m glad you asked.

Landfills of today are strictly regulated by the EPA and must adhere to guidelines regulating the environmental impact they post. This is a dramatically different scenario than the landfills of the 1950’s and 1960 are which were loosely regulated as dumps rather than the landfills we see today. Facilities today accelerate biodegradation creating more gas which can then be captured and used as clean energy through the process of LFG.

The idea is simple; landfills create clean energy and that energy should be used. Landfill gas (LFG) that is a clean, abundant source of energy with the ability to power the facilities themselves, nearby communities and even fuel vehicles. The source of energy is already there inside landfills as materials biodegrade anaerobically. The gas is captured instead of released into the environment which makes it beneficial to the environment and economically valuable.

 

Figure 1.2 Simple illustration of a landfill gas system

Are you scratching your head and wondering why someone who has committed herself to the use of clean energy is essentially saying natural gas is good? I understand, and before I really, really read the facts about LFG I was incredibly skeptical. But here’s the thing, shouldn’t we use what we have (landfills), reduce waste (trash), and create a self sustaining facility (through LFG) and reduce the problem we continue to create (accelerated rates of MSW/year)?

To me, the answer is yes.

References

Siwajek, L. A., Cook, W. J., & Brown, W. R. (1998). U.S. Patent No. 5,842,357. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

EPA, U., & OSWER. (2016, December 14). Advancing sustainable materials management: Facts and figures. Retrieved December 19, 2016, from United States Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/smm/advancing-sustainable-materials-management-facts-and-figures

How much trash do you send to the landfill? (2014, August 4). Retrieved December 19, 2016, from MARC Environment, http://environment.marcblogs.org/tag/trash/

 

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