Why Landfill Diversion Is So Important

Why Landfill Diversion Is So Important

Posted on Sep 16th 2022

Eco oriented companies (like ours) talk a lot about ensuring their products and packaging does not end up in the landfill. 

We hate landfills for many reasons. 

Landfills are major GHG emitters and water polluters

When waste - especially organic waste - is first deposited in a landfill, it undergoes an aerobic (with oxygen) decomposition stage where little methane is generated. Then, typically within less than 1 year, anaerobic conditions are established and methane-producing bacteria begin to decompose the waste - particularly food waste, yard waste, and natural fibers (like paper) that decompose. This is not true for plastics, aluminum and glass.

This decomposition happens very gradually but generates landfill gas (LFG), a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material in landfills. LFG is composed of roughly 50 percent methane (the primary component of natural gas), 50 percent carbon dioxide (CO2) and a small amount of non-methane organic compounds. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane (after fossil fuel production and livestock farming) emissions in the United States, accounting for approximately 15.4 percent of these emissions in 2015.

Note that this does not have to be the case. 

If used effectively, LFG can be a great source of energy. Today, 35% of waste ends up at landfills that capture methane for energy, and the EPA is working to get more landfills in this camp. That said, LFG capture will not solve the issue of landfills. First, LFG capture has been shown to "leak" - so methane is still emitted into the atmosphere in these facilities. Second, simply capturing and using LFG does not solve the following issues. 

Landfills have awful health (and quality of life) consequences for nearby communities, which are often communities of color

Landfills make the local area smell awful. These smells are caused by hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, which are produced when waste material break down. But the smell is just the beginning of the negative impact. 

Short-term exposure can cause cause coughing, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headache, nausea, and breathing difficulties. Communities near landfills showed that these households have elevated reports of health complaints including eye, throat and lung irritation, nausea, headache, nasal blockage, sleeping difficulties, weight loss, chest pain, and aggravation of asthma. 

Methane and carbon dioxide exposure also causes major health issues - faster heartbeats and the need to take deeper breaths, similar to the effects felt after vigorous exercise. 

This is not just an environmental issue. A report by the Center for Effective Government found that people of color are nearly twice as likely as white residents to live within a fenceline zone of a landfill. This is very much an issue of environmental racism at play. No doubt, if landfills were located next to higher income communities, much more work would be done to both divert waste away from landfills and ensure these landfills are better managed, sealed and utilized for productive energy.   

Every item sent to a landfill is done and wasted, and cannot be used again

This is a complete waste of all of the natural resources and human energy that went into its development. Every item in the landfill is a missed opportunity to give new life to something. “Landfill culture” also wreaks havoc. The idea that you can so easily dispose of something means people never truly have to come to grips with what they buy, use and throw away every day.

For EcoEnclose, this is the most problematic aspect of landfills - that they have become dumping grounds for items that are inherently valuable and should be put back into a circular economy as new items of value.

We are running out of landfill space

Bryan Staley, PhD, PE, president and chief executive officer of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF), believes we have 60 years of capacity left in our nation’s current landfill facilities. However, some states are facing more dire shortages. Seven states will run out of landfill space within five years and are therefore shipping trash to faraway states - a costly and energy intensive process. It is likely, however, that as space diminishes, landfills will eventually become waste-to-energy plants, which accounts for just 13% of U.S. waste management, but is far more common across Europe where land is at a premium.

So, what to do with goods you no longer need?

The ecological "end of life hierarchy" is clear: