The green and sustainable landfill?

In December, 2009, BioCycle published an article on the amount of electricity that could be generated from the methane emitted from a Michigan landfill. The author corrected the misperception that there was enough landfill gas emitted from the landfill to generate 300 MW of electricity. 300 MW is a lot of electricity. In reality, the potential was closer to 4.5 MW. Wishful thinking and incomplete information have a lot to do with the public perception that landfills are “green” and sustainable.

In general there are two hopeful stories out there about “green” landfills:

  1. The gas emitted from them can be used to generate electricity, and therefore they are green, and
  2. The long buried materials in their bellies can be harvested at a later time and recycled.

Landfills that are already in use generate methane as the organics that are buried there decompose. The US Environmental Protection Agency has a simple pamphlet explaining the link between climate change, greenhouse gas generation, and waste management. It also explains why recycling reduces the generation of greenhouse gases.

There are three quick points to make regarding the “green” landfill:

  1. Although landfill gas can be collected and used to generate electricity, the best collection systems still only collect 70% (at most) of the emissions while they are installed. The percent collected is actualy more like 40-50%. The methane generated before installation and after decommission is still emitted into the atmosphere.
  2. The recyclable material in landfills (glass, metals, plastics, and paper) degrades and shatters or corrodes, reducing the reuse value of the materials and increasing the health hazards to the people tasked with excavating them.
  3. There is no such thing as a sustainable landfill. The materials that endup burried in a landfill are not returned to society as productive assests. For example, if the gas from a landfill is collected and made into a biofuel, the biofuel can be used as an alternative to gasoline or diesel fuel, but it cannot replenish the soil or be used to raise new crops. 

While products and materials continue to be designed without consideration for their full lifecycle (raw materials extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, use, reuse, decomission and disposal), and we while continue to be a throw-away society, landfills will have a place. However, as the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs posts on their website, “landfills should become the home of last resort for waste.” The US Composting Council, recyclers, and people everywhere understand this, and continue to push to find the best and highest use for landfill-bound materials. It takes a little coordination, a little communication, and minimal effort from consumers.

5 Responses to “The green and sustainable landfill?

  • Tons of Fantastic information in your post, I favorited your site so I can visit again in the future, Cheers

  • After reading the article, I feel that I need more information on the topic. Can you suggest some resources please?

  • Genna Vanhove
    10 years ago

    You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and some related sub topics and I have found a lot of corresponding views.

  • Dayna Poot
    10 years ago

    love the blog, thanks for sharing your thoughts

  • Theron Tassin
    10 years ago

    Thumbs up for that meaning yes. It gives the whole information.

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