The Problem with Landfills

working the landfillOn the EPA web site, the government says:

“Modern landfills are well-engineered facilities that are located, designed, operated, and monitored to ensure compliance with federal regulations. Solid waste landfills must be designed to protect the environment from contaminants which may be present in the solid waste stream. The landfill siting plan—which prevents the siting of landfills in environmentally-sensitive areas—as well as on-site environmental monitoring systems—which monitor for any sign of groundwater contamination and for landfill gas—provide additional safeguards. In addition, many new landfills collect potentially harmful landfill gas emissions and convert the gas into energy. For more information, visit EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program.

Municipal solid waste landfills (MSWLFs) receive household waste. MSWLFs can also receive non-hazardous sludge, industrial solid waste, and construction and demolition debris. All MSWLFs must comply with the federal regulations in 40 CFR Part 258 (Subtitle D of RCRA), or equivalent state regulations.  

Some materials may be banned from disposal in municipal solid waste landfills including common household items such as paints, cleaners/chemicals, motor oil, batteries, and pesticides. Leftover portions of these products are called household hazardous waste. These products, if mishandled, can be dangerous to your health and the environment. Many municipal landfills have a household hazardous waste drop-off station for these materials.

MSWLFs can also receive household appliances (also known as white goods) that are no longer needed. Many of these appliances, such as refrigerators or window air conditioners, rely on ozone-depleting refrigerants and their substitutes. MSWLFs have to follow federal disposal procedures for household appliances that use refrigerants (PDF) (4 pp, 384K, About PDF) . EPA has general information on how refrigerants can damage the ozone layer and consumer information on the specifics of disposing of these appliances.”[1]

Despite the government’s assurance that it is ever-vigilant to protect our health and wellbeing, and to preserve the integrity of the environment where landfills are located, problems do occur.

The EPA does provide a list of standards that all modern landfills are supposed to comply with.  These include barriers to prevent hazardous materials from leeching out and entering the ground water, collection and disposal of methane gas produced by decomposition, and many others.  But despite these standards, tests show that the two major problems in and around landfills are air contamination and water pollution.

Pollution of Ground Water

The water pollution typically does not come from run-off from the landfill entering streams or lakes but from rain water that seeps through the ground in which the trash is buried and picks up contaminants from the items buried there.   This leechate continues down through the ground until it joins the ground water of the community.  Some pollutants are filtered out by passing through sufficient quantities of soil, some – often the most dangerous ones, are not.

Just one example is the mercury found in fluorescent and CFL light bulbs.  If this reaches the drinking water supply for a community, even in very small amounts, it can cause neurological damage to anyone who drinks it.

TCE (trichloroethylene) is a carcinogen typically found in landfill leachate. Even in miniscule amounts, TCE can cause birth defects, leukemia, low birth weight and a host of other problems.[2]

Even in a properly run landfill, where hazardous materials are separated and contained in special sealed basins, some materials can get into the general trash area because consumers toss things like disused computer equipment, dead auto batteries, empty paint cans and unused household cleaners into their general trash.

This is a problem that tends to escalate with the age of the landfill, with completed and covered over landfills continuing to contribute to this problem.

Air Pollution by Landfills

Biodegradation of solid waste can produce toxic gasses called “volatile organic compounds”.  These can come from cleaning supplies, copy paper, glues, pesticides, permanent markers, office equipment and an assortment of other materials deposited in the landfill.  A California air quality test conducted in 1991 showed that one or more of the 10 toxic chemicals typically tested for could be measured in gases emitted from 240 out of 356 landfills tested; in other words, 67% of the tested landfills emitted one or more of these toxic gases.

Documents submitted by landfill officials to DEP in 2010 clearly show a steady upward trend in the release of toxic gases associated with short and long-term health problems; from just 0.2 tons per year in 1972 to 37.8 tons per year – 186 times more – in 2011.

This attributed to more people improperly disposing of VOC producing products.  The solution is increased awareness and participation in Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.

Other Problems

Other problems that can occur are infection and injury to birds, snakes and animals that scavenge in the open parts of the landfill. Puddles of contaminated water as well as contaminated or spoiled food refuse can add to the spread of disease.

Plastic 6-pack binders are a constant danger to most birds and animals.

Soil contamination occurs from burying toxic items rendering the completed land fill useless for most purposes.

Appearance and smell of a landfill are aesthetic concerns for any residents who live too near.

Cost and sustainability are constant issues as well.  As a community’s population grows, the amount of trash it must deal with swells.  More land must be allocated and developed; leech barriers and siphon pipes must be installed to contain leechates and emissions from hazardous wastes.

The Answer?

The best way to reduce all of these problems is to keep as many toxic items as possible out of the landfills.  Reuse or recycle everything that can be, properly dispose of everything that cannot.

For example, most home improvement centers now have boxes where inoperative CFL bulbs and fluorescent tubes may be deposited for proper recycling (don’t break them!)  By not throwing them out with your trash you keep that mercury out of the landfill and out of your water supply.

Most chapters of Keep America Beautiful (including Keep Cocke County Beautiful) hold electronics recycling events where old office equipment, computers, and televisions are collected and taken in for proper dismantling, recovery of useable materials and recycling them.

These are just a few ways we can help reduce the risks and costs involved with landfills.  Please practice the 3 R’s: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle!





The Problem with Landfills — 2 Comments

    • I’d suggest you ask around the neighborhood to see if anyone has a chipper. If so you could use that to turn the yard debris into mulch for your yard… or a neighbors yard if you have no flowers or a garden.

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