On average, each American throws away 4.4 pounds of trash every single day. Even if that somehow doesn’t sound like a whole lot, think about the fact that with 323.7 million people living in the U.S. that is about 728,000 tons of trash every day, or enough to completely load up 63,000 garbage trucks. Municipal landfills that handle every day trash like plastic bottles, newspapers, clothing, electronics, and organic food matter, are filling up rapidly. Each year we send about 200 billion plastic bottles, 58 billion disposable cups, and billions of plastic bags to landfills.
Rather than going to a landfill, all of these things can be reused, recycled, or simply not purchased. They can then be saved a slow, multi-century long decomposition process; one that causes a significant release of dioxins and other chemicals that have a devastating effect on surrounding ecosystems and global climate. There are some landfill sites that can capture some of the toxic gases, use it to create steam that turns a turbine, which then creates up to 50 megawatts of electricity. These facilities are called Gas To Energy landfills, and although they are still a step in the right direction, that still doesn’t address the fact that unless they capture 100% of emitted gases and toxins, they still negatively affect ecosystems and the environment. It also doesn’t take into consideration the energy used to create and dispose of that trash to begin with, is far greater than any post-disposal energy collection, so reducing your waste is still the way to go.
To create a landfill, a giant pit is dug out of the earth, then a layer of clay is placed as a base, then a ground cover or tarp (which can potentially and at times, does tear) is placed to catch any toxic leachate from merging with the groundwater. Trash is continuously compacted and covered with dirt until the pit is filled. Once filled, a mound of soil is placed on top and is typically monitored for methane and safe groundwater for up to 30 years. Here is what a very costly, and new landfill site looks like in detail.
Scientists have removed trash from landfill sites up to 40 years after they’ve been closed and found that some newspapers were as legible as the day they were printed. Because the trash is compacted in cells which are then covered with soil and tarps, and then continuously compacted, the environment in which the trash rests, lacks oxygen. This means that the decomposition, now an anaerobic process, is extremely slow and so much of the trash will remain almost indefinitely.
Issues with Landfills:
- They take up an unnecessary amount of important forestry and land which displaces wildlife and further increases the conflict between animals and humans. It is estimated that there are over 2,000 suburban coyotes that have been pushed into the city of Chicago, and although they are becoming well adapted to this environment, this is not shaping up to be a positive relationship between humans and coyotes. People are uneasy when bears, wolves, mountain lions, and coyotes move closer into their communities and removing even the smallest area of their habitat only makes this issue worse. It is not likely that many other states will ever run into the issue of space when it comes to landfills, but why waste precious wildlife habitat for such a toxic, horribly rancid, costly, and unnecessarily destructive cause that could easily be diverted through other means of disposal?
- Since the landfill trash is routinely covered, it anaerobically decomposes at a much slower rate, which causes it to produce significantly more methane than it would outside of a landfill. The excessive methane that is produced in this way, rather than carbon dioxide that would be produced in an aerobic decomposition process, holds up to 25 times more heat in the atmosphere, which in turn contributes to the global shifts in our current climate. The problem is, that landfill sites are only required to capture a fraction of it, and landfills are still a massive contributor of the worlds entire methane emissions contributing to an upsetting one third of the earth’s total production.
- Leachate, another toxic byproduct of landfills, accumulates when trash and food matter decompose, is then rained on, and then the toxic chemicals accumulate at the bottom of the lined dump site. The chemical concoction that accumulates is what we call leachate. The leachate is routinely monitored and once contained, is transported to a leachate pond. The problem is that not all landfill sites are able to effectively monitor or capture the leachate, especially older ones, and in the event of a tear in the liners, although unlikely, disputes over who should be held responsible for the costly cleanup can delay it entirely.
- In some cases, landfills can struggle to meet standards set to prevent toxic dust containing dioxins that make their way into the food chain, initially through local vegetation which is then eaten by livestock and then eventually by humans. These dioxins become airborne when the dirt and waste becomes disturbed through moving machinery and becomes airborne. Dioxins are essentially toxic compounds that lead to all sorts of endocrine disruptions, birth defects, and immune system suppression.