The Organic Danger of Landfills

I am in California this week attending a conference focusing on the oil and energy industries. The objective of the sponsoring organization, to standardize procedures for safer and more economically friendly practices, is beneficial, but as someone who wears writer and editor hats in these industries, I am often not interested in the content so much as the publishing aspects of the projects. So some conversation goes over my head. This year, however, the guest speaker for our breakfast discussed proposed EPA changes to limit emissions in California. What caught my eye about his talk was one of his first slides, which described the estimated responsibility of methane emissions in California via a pie chart. Despite speaking at an oil and energy conference, only 9% of the total methane emissions in the state were from oil production, keeping most attendees’ eyes toward the smaller sections of the chart. My eyes, however, went immediately to the largest sections. Agriculture took the prize at close to half the emissions, but there in the second slice, boasting more than 30% of emissions in the state, was a very simple word: landfills.

In a room of easily 200 people, I was likely the only one who was taken back by the statistic–I might have been the only one who even caught it–but it was sharp timing for me. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that my partner and I are trying to live more intentionally by recycling, reducing our waste, buying minimally, and many other changes. In the process, we have tried to embrace a zero waste lifestyle, one that has us considering how we can reduce the amount of waste we produce, whether it be packaging from purchases or food waste. I’ll be writing more about this in a future post, so let it suffice now to say that it is more difficult than some people say it is. To help us figure out how to change our habits, I am reading a book, which I will also review in the near future, that discusses the impact of landfills and its role in encouraging the author to live a zero waste lifestyle.

Thus, the timing of this presentation was perfect for me. While we are still considering how we can change various habits, here is a real-life statistic reinforcing the book’s message. Landfills are producing around 30% of methane gas in a single state; granted that state has a high population with one of the largest cities in the country, but it is still impressive that a human process of how we bury our trash can have such a high statistic in the production of greenhouses gasses. With this information, it is easy to see that something needs to change, but most people will shrug at the thought of having to alter a habit as ingrained in American living as trash disposal. The common argument is that it’s too difficult to find an alternative system for an individual family, and it is true that right now state and local governments do not have better methods in mind for handling American’s trash. How, then, can we begin to alter our lifestyles to lower these statistics? It is easier than we think, but it starts with knowledge about what we are aiming to correct.

First, it is imperative to understand how landfills work. Landfills are created by literally digging monstrous holes in the ground and then lining them with material that in most cases only minimizes the possibility of byproducts leaking into the environment. This is a key aspect to understand: landfills are meant to bury trash, not decompose of it. Because we know perfectly well that landfills will never disappear, our goal in designing them is how to contain the byproducts of the items that go into the landfills. One key feature is a lining beneath the trash that is meant to keep organic material or toxic liquids from leaking out of the landfill area. The lining  is often low-permeable, not impermeable. In other words, as long as the lining is in good condition, leaks will be minimal but can still exist. As the lining ages, leachate, which is created as water drains through the landfill and collects toxic byproducts, combining it all into a single toxin, will begin to permeate the lining and drain into the soil and nearby water sources. It is worth noting here that some companies are working on systems to remove leachate before it reaches the lining to counteract this issue; however, this is one major deficit of a landfill society that we only see after our designs begin to degrade.

The second issue relates to the gasses created by the decomposition of products in the landfill, the methane I mentioned earlier. This is because landfills take almost anything you throw at them. With the exception of hazardous waste, you can toss food, plastics, metals, glass, clothing, and even animal feces into a landfill. While it all contributes to the toxins that form leachate, many items go through their own decomposition process while others do not.

Most items eventually decompose into a different form, but many synthetic items have a slower or unnatural process. For example, whereas plants die and are often eaten by bugs or provide nutrients to soil as they decompose–disappearing entirely–plastics never decompose. Instead, plastics break up into smaller and smaller pieces until they reach their smallest constituents and remain that way permanently. So, that plastic wrapper you tossed in the trash will never actually disappear. Instead, it breaks down in the landfill for decades until it is small enough to disperse throughout the sludge and the particles are carried in rain water, through leachate that leaks into the soil, or in high winds to other parts of the city.

But plastics are a different story–let’s return to methane that comes from organics. Organic items such as plants and food decompose with the help of bacteria and nature’s decomposers: insects, fungi, and certain bacteria that can survive without oxygen. They help tear down the organic material and process it to produce waste in the form of gasses that are primarily carbon dioxide and methane. Therefore, the more organic items that go into a landfill, the more methane that will be produced. The key to this process, however, is an anoxic environment (sometimes referred to as anaerobic), one that is devoid of oxygen, which is accomplished in landfills far beneath the top layer of products.

Your question might be “Why is methane a big deal?” After all, it is produced naturally as an organic byproduct. The issue with methane is its role in human-caused climate change. While it doesn’t have the lifespan of other greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, it traps heat at a rate of 21 times greater than carbon dioxide. As a result, it doesn’t take as much methane as other greenhouse gasses to cause the same increase of heat in the atmosphere, which increases the amount of trapped heat and thereby quickens the rate of climate change. When emitted into the atmosphere in large quantities, methane can have an impact on the quality of our atmosphere and encourage climate change.

This might feel like a long line of connections, but follow me back to a zero waste lifestyle for a moment. The goal of zero waste is not to just reduce the amount of garbage that you create but to reduce to a minimum all types of waste that occur as a product of you simply living. Some people will argue that organic waste decomposes in a landfill, so tossing it in the bin doesn’t carry a negative impact. However, this isn’t always true. Studies have shown that, if enough trash is piled up, at a certain level within the landfill the environment for decomposition becomes limited and even organic material will not properly decompose. So the idea that all organic material will eventually disappear in landfill environments is a myth that we have naturally proven is not accurate in our landfill process.

Knowing that landfills are not the ideal situation for organic material to decompose, the idea behind zero waste encourages us to find an alternative, especially one that reduces secondary waste such as methane. While higher methane levels are released with landfills, this is not the case with home-based composting. Composting is a method by which you can decompose of organic materials such as yard clippings and leftover food by creating a contained environment in which natural decomposers carry out the process and create fertilizer as an end result. The fertilizer can be used in the yard with some restrictions so that the process literally returns the organic material back to nature. Composting is a wonderful way to eliminate waste because it reuses the organic material in a way that encourages the production of more organic material. Knowing what we do about the excess production of methane in landfills–a contributor of an estimated 15% of the world’s methane levels–the concept of composting is all the more ideal to keep organic wastes from entering the landfill.

Composting can be difficult to swing if you do not have the space. We live in a one-bedroom apartment and the most popular form of indoor composting takes up space and is not ideal for many people. I am still struggling to wrap my head around some aspects of it and haven’t taken the leap, but we would happily jump right into it if we could keep our composting outdoors. Until we determine if and how we want to compost in our current situation, we have started doing a few other actions in lieu of composting:

  • Intentionally purchasing groceries so that we do not overbuy. This keeps us from having food that goes bad before we can eat it as well as keeps us from losing track of what is in the pantry or fridge.
  • Eating leftovers. This sounds simple but I had to get myself in the habit of doing this because I simply let leftovers go to waste when I was younger. Thankfully, my partner is thrifty and keeps me on task with storing and eating leftovers so that we get our money’s worth out of a meal and have less waste to dispose.
  • Reusing leftovers in other meals. If you have leftover food that can be reincorporated into a different meal such as leftover chicken that can be used in chicken salad, this creates a new meal (not the same leftovers) and keeps the waste out of the bin or compost pile. You did, after all, pay for all of the food–why waste it?
  • Look for ways to incorporate different foods in recipes. I like dried, unsweetened cranberries. They are great for you and make a good snack, but my partner doesn’t care for them much. I try to buy them by weight so that I don’t overbuy, but sometimes I end up getting too much. To keep them in my diet and to keep from wasting them, I have started adding them to my chicken salad and on top of my side salads. Eventually, I’d like to put them a homemade granola bar recipe that we want to try as well.

There are several things you can do in lieu of composting, but, if you are wanting to have an impact, the ultimate goal should be to reduce waste altogether. When we consider the impact of landfills, these magical places that most Americans don’t consider when they toss their trash, the objective shouldn’t just be to recycle plastics and keep reusable items out of the rubbage. The aim needs to be an overall understanding of how one action leads to another so that we can change beginning habits in a way that they encompass all related effects. By composting at home or taking action to keep organic material out of landfills, we not only minimize the size of landfills but also reduce the amount of methane that is produced and released into the environment, thereby having a direct, albeit minute, impact on climate change.

In the end it’s all about what types of impacts you want to have, but keeping your ears perked can open your eyes to how your life affects the earth when you hear side facts like the overall methane effects of landfills. When you find these connections between how you live your life and the things occurring in the world around you, it solidifies the significance of your choices, of the impact you can have in the way you live your life. Even in a room full of individuals uninterested in the single fact you’be realized on your own, that’s a cool experience to have.

Do you have any suggestions for how to address food waste or avoid the landfill?


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