Mount Everest made headlines recently — the Nepalese government just hauled 24,000 pounds of trash off the mountain, pulling back the curtain on what had become the world’s highest garbage dump.
The more trash we produce, the fewer places we have to put it. The EPA’s waste management hierarchy deems disposal the least preferred strategy: the ultimate goal is to recover as many resources from the waste stream as possible before resorting to disposal. Germany, for example, has the highest rate of garbage per capita, but recovers about 80% of it.
In the U.S., trash generation has tripled since the 1960s, largely because of the proliferation of cheap packaging: styrofoam, plastic, aluminum cans. Whereas meat used to be carried away in paper, now it’s placed on a styrofoam tray and wrapped in plastic film. And much of this packaging, without thought, is tossed. It goes down a chute, inside a bin, onto a truck, and, eventually, into a landfill.
Since childhood, I’ve known landfills to be those elusive piles on the side of the highway that stink and are quickly forgotten. In Florida, we called them all ‘Mount Trashmore’.
But landfills are actually much more sophisticated, and complicated, than that. Understanding where they come from and how they work is the first step in repairing a broken system.
The Landfill is Born
In 1937, Fresco, California, opened the first sanitary landfill. Every day, local waste was trenched, compacted, and covered. Today, it’s a National Historic Landmark.
The modern landfill was created based on this model — but it would not proliferate for a few decades. Until the 1970s, trash went in manmade dumps, where it seeped into the ground and the water, turning into what’s known as ‘leachate’ and released enormous amounts of methane into the air. As we now know, this was an environmental disaster.
By 1965, the Solid Waste Disposal Act went into effect, creating a national office to tackle solid waste, and in 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, requiring facilities to line the dumps, collect leachate for proper disposal, and vent and burn the resulting methane.
According to Tom Szaky’s The Future of Packaging, things snowballed quickly.
“The next decade brought on what came to be known as the ‘landfill crisis of the 1980s,’ as a throwaway culture, major manufacturing of synthetic items (picture shiny exercise apparel, VHS tapes, and video game consoles), and dependence on linear disposal brought landfill use, which was inexpensive at the time, to a fever pitch. By the end of the eighties, landfills were either closing or massively increasing their rates.”
Here’s a look at the proliferation of landfills over the last century:
As the trends show, landfill sites consolidated and grew. In 1986, there were 7,683 dumps. In 2018, there were about 2,000 landfills.
Building, and Funding, a Landfill
“A private landfill sets its tipping fees based on competition and supply and demand; the more landfill area available, generally the lower the rates are going to be. For that reason, landfills in western states — where landfills are more numerous and customers less so — tend to charge less. Landfills in the northeast, by contrast, charge the highest rates in the country. “
Building and managing a landfill properly is an expensive proposition. The process of building a new one can take decades. The proposal is followed by an environmental impact study that documents soil, bedrock, and water flows as well as how a landfill might impact wildlife. After securing permits and funds, the public votes.
Then building begins. The traditional type of landfill, “dry tomb,” grew as a reaction to trash seeping into water streams. The goal was to keep solid waste as dry and airtight as possible, the complete opposite to composting, which requires humidity to break down materials.
Dry Tomb Landfills
Dry tomb landfills consist of the following:
- A bottom liner: sometimes as thick as 100mm, made of puncture-resistant, strong plastic
- Cells: containing the day’s compacted garbage — the more compact, the more you can bury — covered with several inches of dirt or ground building waste.
- Leachate collection system: you always want to build a landfill on a mound, where water can run off and be collected, tested, and sent to a water remediation system or wastewater plant. Both run-on and run-off precipitation is gathered in drainage systems.
- Methane collection system: some landfills build on-site power plants to harness the methane gas produced (about 50%) and burn it to create fuel.
In recent years, the dry tomb model has been replaced with the bioreactor model as landfill of choice. With added liquids (sometimes the leachate produced by that very garbage), landfills greatly increase anaerobic decomposition. As a result, more methane is produced in a shorter time span, so facilities have to be equipped to handle methane volume at speed. Another difference: as opposed to the dry tombs, which have to be monitored for 30 years after closure, owners can walk away from these when all is said and done, as the material is more degraded and less hazardous.
Methane production is a rightly and hotly contested topic right now in landfills that don’t implement Landfill Gas Energy Recovery for conversion to RNG or electricity.
Municipal solid waste (MSW ) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 14.1% of these emissions in 2017. At the same time, methane emissions from landfills represent a lost opportunity to capture and use a significant energy resource.
When MSW is first deposited in a landfill, it undergoes an aerobic (with oxygen) decomposition stage when little methane is generated. Then, typically within less than 1 year, anaerobic conditions are established and methane-producing bacteria begin to decompose the waste and generate methane.
In October 2009, EPA issued a rule (40 CFR Part 98) that requires the reporting of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from large sources and suppliers in the United States, and is intended to collect accurate and timely emissions data to inform future policy decisions.
Landfills, Locale, and Pollution
In states with few landfills, the question of where to put trash is a political one: landfills can be built virtually anywhere, but many voters don’t want them near their homes. The Northeast is running out of landfill space more quickly than any other U.S. region. (Faced with the proximity and expense of their waste production, the Northeast also exhibits more widespread and earlier adoption of complex waste resource extraction systems including organics recycling). The current solution is to ship waste to other states.
As detailed in The Outline, New York state goes through 3,700 million gallons of water daily; after running through drains, pipes, and toilets, this wastewater is separated and the resulting biosolids are sent off to landfills. Only 51% of these biosolids-Municipal Solid Waste-will be destined to stay in New York; the rest is shipped west, to states that will take it. (There are promising inroads into implementing resource recovery from biosolids, though bias is slowing progress on this front).
As bleakly noted in Slate, “Like prisoners, trash shipments can be big business for states willing to accept them.”
The term “Big Business” is slightly misleading: while tipping fees can add up quickly, waste management, especially materials resource recovery, is increasingly technologically sophisticated and expensive. This is in part why China stopped accepting shipments of U.S. recycling.
Case in point, Alabama accepts out-of-state garbage shipments. Alabama also has some of the lowest landfill tipping fees in the United States. Alabama recycles 16% of total waste, which is double what it recycled in 2012, and still lags behind the national average (which is 34% waste diversion; 25.8% recycled).
In response to the increase of East Coast garbage being shipped in and dumped, Alabama’s state government levied a $1 per ton fee on material buried in Alabama’s privately owned landfill operations in 2008. Through this levy, the state has funneled $17 million from landfill fees into local recycling programs. Improvements can be seen — in 2018, Alabama diverted more than 25% of all waste from landfills, a goal the state set in 1991.
In response to a greater push for trash diversion, waste management companies are expanding beyond the landfill. Some have set up compost/organics recycling and recycling facilities on the same land, while others are moving into the waste-to-energy(WTE) space. Recycling and waste-to-energy processes both create unrecoverable waste, making a strong case for co-location. In addition, this reduces transportation costs and emissions, and alleviates permit issues. Landfills are unlikely to go away entirely any time soon, but by responding to the needs and voices of 2019, they can move beyond burial to recovery.
Abandoning a Landfill
Inactive landfills abound. In Chicago, for example, Comiskey Park was built on a landfill. During a baseball game, a piece of metal was sticking out of the ground. It turned out to be a copper kettle from the landfill below.
In the 1980s, four New York Giants football players developed cancer, which caused the team and its coaches to demand repeated water and soil testing-the Meadowlands stadium was built over a notorious landfill site. While no conclusive evidence was found, the Garden State renamed “Garbage State” is now ranked 4th in states with highest rates of cancer nationwide, from 6th in the ‘80s.