Landfills: Causes, Effects and Solutions

Blog August 17th, 2020
Landfills: Causes, Effects and Solutions
Landfills: Causes, Effects and Solutions

There are just under 325 million people living in the U.S. Each day they collectively throw out enough garbage to fill 63,000 garbage trucks.

Of the 268 million tons of municipal waste produced in 2017, only 67 million tons were recycled. A small amount was composted but, unfortunately, most garbage ended up at one of the country’s more than 2,000 landfill plants.

Landfills are the oldest and most common form of waste disposal. They keep garbage out of sight and out of mind for decades. That may be a nice aesthetic benefit, but the downsides—greenhouse gases, leachate, and other toxins—generated from these facilities have become a serious global health problem. Eighty percent of waste is dumped in open landfills near our rivers, lakes, and oceans posing serious risks to people, animals, and the environment.

Experts agree there’s an urgent need to reduce landfill waste. Recycling has helped. Other landfill solutions are being explored, including landfill alternatives and finding ways to divert waste from landfills, and these alternatives offer real promise.

Landfill Gases a Top Concern

Modern landfills are, according to the EPA, well-engineered facilities designed to protect us against toxic contaminants. Older and inactive landfills, many of which are now covered by public parks and other structures, are another story.

Landfill gas contains about 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide. While experts have long focused on the carbon dioxide emissions landfills give off, an increased focus on climate change has given rise to worries about the effects of methane.

Landfills produce millions of cubic feet of methane gas each day. Landfill methane is a natural result of the decomposition of organic materials and is invisible.

Problems result when methane leaks into the air before being captured and used for things like natural gas. The escaped methane absorbs the sun’s heat and warms the atmosphere. Though it doesn’t linger in the air as long as carbon dioxide, it can be up to 28 times more potent.

The Effects of Landfill Gas Emissions

In the U.S., municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third-largest contributor to human-related methane emissions. After just a year, methane-producing bacteria begin to decompose the waste and generate the gas. Production of landfill gases generally peaks in about seven years, but landfills can continue to produce gases for more than 50 years.

Landfill gases can affect communities through the air and soil. The levels of gases that migrate from landfills vary but there’s little doubt they can, in some circumstances, cause public health problems and pose serious risks to the environment.

Diverting Waste from Landfills

Compared to carbon dioxide’s 100-to-300-year lifespan, methane gas on average remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years. Focusing on the reduction of methane released from landfills can reduce climate change risk much more rapidly.

A practical, direct approach to reducing landfill methane is to reduce the amount of methane-generating materials making their way to landfills in the first place. Along with plastics and other household trash, organic materials like food scraps and yard waste are a good place to start.

Past studies suggest up to 50% of all food is wasted in the U.S. so diverting this waste from landfills offers big opportunities. How?

Food scraps and yard waste that end up in landfills are compacted. This causes them to break down anaerobically, a condition where methane-producing bacteria flourishes. Most efforts at keeping these materials out of landfills have concentrated on turning them into compost.

UBQ’s patented process is designed to turn waste into a renewable thermoplastic resource. Manufacturers can use this to replace oil-based plastics production. We’re dedicated to helping reduce landfill gas emissions while helping brands reduce their global footprints. Reach out today to learn more.