Monday, August 17, 2009

What the Big Waste Companies Dont Want You To Know About Landfill?

I don't know anyone who thinks landfill is a good idea, yet it is one of the most widely used ways of disposing of waste. Every city in the world seems to have one. I'm sure there are a few places that don't and would definitely be interested to find out where these cities are and what they do instead.

Yet despite this common dislike, very few people understand the perils beyond; "They stink!" or "I don't want to live near one!". They don't want to live near one, probably because they stink and maybe because of all the trucks taking garbage to the dump.

Most of the big companies that operate them definitely don't want the public to know the problems associated with them. Some of them are multi-billion dollar corporations and their business models would be irreparably damaged if they were not allowed to landfill, which is what would happen if people really understood the truth about landfills. However some of the more enlightened ones are looking at alternatives. Most of the alternatives involve incineration and using the heat to drive turbines to generate electricity. Incineration has its own set of problems and destroys the resource molecules so they are lost forever.

The first thing you should know is that even where there is rigorous recycling, more than 30% of what we throw out ends up in landfill. More likely its closer to 60%. These numbers rise when commodity prices are low, like now, and it becomes too costly to recycle much of what is collected.

All cities could do a better job of recycling, but we need to change their paradigm about recycling and what it is. See my blog What is Recycling at the Molecular Level? This way resource molecules can be reused many times over.

The reason why landfill smells is largely because of the bacteria in waste that cause decomposition. We all know what rotting food smells like and its only one of the components. These smells are carried into the air with the gas that escapes from landfill. This decomposition is slowed by the lack of oxygen in the landfill and it results in a combination of biological processes, physical processes and chemical process that may take more than 150 years to break down all the materials in a landfill. Until that happens gas builds up and leaks out of even the best managed landfills.

There is a lot of talk these days and some action around tapping landfills for the methane gas they produce. The idea is to capture it and use it to produce electricity or to use as a natural gas substitute. This definitely works, but is one of those ideas that work better in theory than in practice. Landfills by their nature are not completely gas tight, so as much as 50% of the methane produced simply escapes into the atmosphere. This is a big problem if you are a believer in the climate changing effects of green house gases (GHG)from landfill. Methane is 21 times more powerful than CO2 as a GHG. Methane is light and rapidly dissipates into the atmosphere.

Municipal waste is the most non-homogeneous substance known to man. The problem is that we throw anything undesirable into the garbage. Apart from plastic, paper glass and metals, we throw rotting food, dirty diapers, dog poop, soiled tampons, paper towel used to clear up everything from gravy spills to vomit etc. I could go on, but you get the point.

Much of this stuff is laden with bacteria. The bacteria spreads and grows in the warm moist environment,further breaking down whatever it can thrive on. This in turn generates liquids, some of which can be very toxic and they can leak out as leachate. Leachate can contaminate the ground water and must be monitored on a very regular basis with wells in the nearby country side. We've got better at preventing ground water contamination, but why take the chance.

In some countries landfill fires are a problem. These fires fill the air with toxic smoke and the ash may also mix with the leachate, causing further problems if it is toxic. This doesn't often happen in North America, but it doesn't mean it cant.

We need to begin to push back against new landfills and embrace emerging technologies that offer the promise of zero landfill. The big companies that operate landfills make a fortune from this archaic and unpleasant practice and it is not in their best interests to change their business model.

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