Landfill Waste Is Really Starting To Pile Up

Investment in recycling and composting by individuals, businesses and governments has seen a dramatic increase over the past 20 years, but is it enough to mitigate landfill gas emission risks? 

The latest EPA data says that the American recycling rate has never exceeded 35%, while countries like Germany, Austria, South Korea and Wales all recycle more than 50% of the waste they produce. 

During the COVID pandemic commercial and public waste to landfills did drop with the closing of restaurants, schools and office buildings. However, residential waste to landfills increased significantly as people ate at home more, tackled long overdue purging projects in basements and completed both indoor and outdoor renovations.What is in our home’s trash?

Breakdown of items and materials found in U.S. landfills

So why does this matter? 

The trash heaps at landfills suffocate what sits beneath the top layer, leading to anaerobic decomposition of matter which emits methane. Methane is the ultimate bad guy among greenhouse gasses with a warming impact up to 28 times greater than Carbon – at least 25% of today’s warming is driven by methane from human activity while only making up 10% of greenhouse gases according to the EPA. This further illustrates the importance of reducing methane, in addition to carbon. 

The EPA recognizes over 3,000 active landfills in the United States, and estimates that nearly 75% of the trash in them can be reused, recycled or returned to the earth responsibly. So why isn’t it? We see two primary gaps that need to be addressed:

  1. The Knowledge Void: A survey conducted by Covanta found that 62 percent of respondents said they struggle to dispose of things correctly due to a lack of knowledge of what goes where. Whether you err on the side of “recycle it” or “trash it”, you could be contributing to some significant problems if you guess wrong. 

A macro approach to educating citizens on ‘recyclability’ of substrates could be helpful, but ultimately every bin across the country seems to accept a different combination of plastic, paper, aluminum, glass, etc. which makes it tough for one to know what’s acceptable. A ‘common recycling bin’ in one town can accept different substrates than a ‘common recycling bin’ in the next town over, so even with good labeling on bins and products it takes some investigation.

  1. The Convenience Void: Garbage cans seem to outnumber recycling bins in public spaces a thousand to one. Often we can’t (or don’t want to) hold onto our recyclable waste until we come across the appropriate bin or get home. If you live in a single family detached home your recycling container is probably smaller than your garbage bin and it probably gets picked up less frequently if at all. Many multifamily apartment buildings only have one dumpster and no communal recycling drop. 

Many items we use regularly have special recycling programs that don’t allow us to just toss it in the bin. Sure you CAN donate old clothes, recycle your ink cartridges, and your plastic bags from the grocery store (when you forget your reusables), but you need to drive somewhere to drop them off, or even mail them in. It can be a hassle, and more importantly, it can be hard to remember to put those bags back in your car for the next trip to the store. 

Team members measure the anaerobic activity beneath the surface covering at a Central Ohio landfill.

What can we do now?

Attacking the landfill problem from a couple flanks is important. 

  • Reduce the waste we send to the landfills. You can do your part by committing to recycling and composting the appropriate waste (with the help of new technology alternatives like Lomi) and buying from businesses that minimize their footprint. You also need to raise awareness in your community while leaning on your elected officials while advocating for stricter restrictions on single use materials and for easier recycling and composting. 
  • Make methane capture gas-to-energy infrastructure more economically viable

The nation’s largest municipality landfills are heavily regulated to mitigate their environmental risk – but most landfills are not. The infrastructure and maintenance required by methane capture projects costs millions of dollars for even a small landfill. We need to reduce these costs to the municipalities or owner/operators of the facilities with government grants, carbon offsets, and investment in research to develop less expensive technology. 

Citizens, businesses and politicians have a role to play in minimizing the environmental impact of our trash. Ensure you are taking care of what you can control today, then go expand your sphere of influence tomorrow!

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