Yard and food waste make up over a quarter of all the garbage going into American landfills. Composting will change that.
In most of the world, including North America, we do one of two things with our ordinary garbage: burn it or bury it. Neither one is good for us or for the environment. Burning garbage in incinerators releases dangerous gases and dust (particulate matter) which contribute to global warming and pollute lakes, forests, oceans and cities half a world away from where they originated. Most incinerators in industrialized countries now remove large quantities of particles and pollutants, thus ensuring cleaner air. But the bulk of what they remove ends up in a landfill.
This site concentrates on landfills, in part because this improvement in incinerator technology has increased the pressure on landfills, and in part because a much higher proportion of garbage in North America is sent to landfills than to incinerators.
Burying garbage also causes both air and water pollution, and simply transporting it to the sites consumes an increasing amount of valuable fossil fuels, which produces more pollution and other problems.
Buried in a landfill, the typical plastic trash bag takes 1,000 years to degrade, giving off toxins as it does. These biodegradable bags — available in various sizes — decompose quickly and safely with their contents.
As a result, alternatives to the burn-or-bury option are increasingly attractive. Composting heads that list of alternatives (see Cities Embrace Composting Programs).
Is Your Landfill Full? Space Issues
It might seem that yard waste and food scraps must be amongst the more benign things you could send to your local landfill. These things are not toxic; how could they contribute to pollution? As for space, how much can these things take up? Besides, unlike an old toaster they decompose, which means that they take up less space next year than they do when they’re thrown away.
All of this sounds perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, much of it is either wrong or misleading.
The Sad Saga of the Unwanted Garbage
Garbage would not make most people’s short-list of top comedic fare. But in the early spring of 1987 Johnny Carson made it part of his nightly monologue and the whole world laughed.
The occasion was a barge loaded with over 3,100 tons of Long Island garbage which wandered the world for three months looking for a final resting place before finally slinking back home. There it languished for another three months while suits were filed and court injunctions handed down. The garbage was finally incinerated and buried in the same landfill it would have gone to had it never left New York.
The Mobro 4000 and its hapless tug the Break of Dawn left Long Island on March 22, bound for Morehead, N.C. It’s fragrant cargo was to be used for methane production. Brainchild of Alabama businessman Lowell Harrelson, the plan called for hauling plentiful Long Island garbage to less crowded environs, there to harvest methane and spread the composted waste on southern fields. Not such a bad idea perhaps, except that apparently little of it had been cleared with officials.
The governor of North Carolina banned the barge from unloading, as did Florida, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana. The hunt for a dump then went international. News reports from the time carry accounts of the homeless barge forlornly circling Grand Isle, Louisiana, which measures under 8 square miles in area, including surrounding water. Cuba, Mexico and Belize all rejected the offer of Long Island trash. The barge eventually turned around and made its way back up the coast.
The legal battle lasted nearly as long as the journey itself. A month into the Mobro’s wanderings, EPA officials made arrangements to inspect the decaying load and help determine its fate. But the barge ducked the appointment, instead heading for Mexican waters. American officials were apparently concerned that the garbage might be dumped at sea, which would have violated US law.
When the barge finally headed back north, environmental organizations sued. When it reached Long Island in July, Queens Councilwoman Claire Shulman sued to keep it from docking. New York State Supreme Court judges signed a restraining order halting plans to incinerate the garbage.
In the meantime, charges that some of the garbage came not from Long Island, as originally advertised, but from New York City itself, some of it even from Manhattan, had made the load even less palatable to potential dumping sites. Though it was supposed to contain primarily office refuse, rumors circulated that it might contain diapers and hazardous medical waste.
The Coast Guard weighed in, insisting that the barge would stay put until the constituents sorted things out. When that dispute was resolved, local residents protested, burning effigies of city officials in the streets. The garbage was finally incinerated in early September and the ashes were buried in the Ipswich landfill, the one originally designated to receive them.
The whole things would never have happened if Long Island hadn’t been facing a landfill crisis. Because its garbage dumps were polluting groundwater, New York State passed legislation in 1983 ordering all landfills on the Island closed by 1990. Incinerators pollute the air, while trucking trash off the island costs twice as much as putting it into landfills. It’s clear why Long Island officials jumped at an offer to take some of the stuff off their hands.
The extended episode is widely credited with launching the modern age of recycling and of focusing public attention on the shrinking space available in landfills.
Across most of North America, yard and food waste make up over a quarter of all the ordinary garbage we throw away. That’s 25% by weight. In the U.S., that 25% is almost equally divided between yard waste (32.6 million tons, or 12.8% of all MSW) and food scraps (31.7 million tons, or 12.5%). And then there’s all the other organic stuff that could be composted: all the clothing, towels, and bedding made of organic fibers, plus wood, old furniture and sawdust. Then there’s paper, which at 83 million tons accounts for another 30% of municipal solid waste. As of 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, over 64% of the yard waste we throw away was recovered and composted, as was 54.5% of the paper and cardboard. Only 2.6% of food waste reached a compost heap.
In other words, well over fifty percent of our ordinary garbage could be composted, but most of it isn’t.
This ordinary garbage, or Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), is household and business trash as opposed to chemical or industrial waste. It’s the stuff most of us put in our trashcans at home, at school, or at work, to be picked up and hauled away: paper, packaging, food scraps, old toys, old chairs, old microwaves, lamp shades, blue-jeans and books. It includes trash from offices and restaurants. In the majority of cases across North America, it ends up in a landfill. This is in spite of the fact that 24 states, at least one province, and hundreds of municipalities now ban yard waste from landfills.
Landfills also accept certain types of commercial and even industrial waste which is one reason why the mix in them can become so toxic.
What’s up in Canada?
National statistics on municipal solid waste in Canada are so hard to come by that one Saskatchewan report devoted a whole section to detailing why. Different provinces use different measurement units (cubic yards, tonnes) and there’s no consistent tracking method for identifying and recording whether waste entering a landfill comes from a municipal, commercial or industrial source. Some Canadian landfills lack scales; there’s no information about what gets dumped in any units. That section of the report, titled “Measurement Challenges,” bears the subtitle, “Or, why I am completely bald.”
Despite the hair-pulling discrepancies and omissions, some things are clear. First, the eastern provinces are doing best at waste diversion, which includes composting, recycling and programs that keeps garbage out of landfills or incinerators. See “” in EnviroStats, Statistics Canada’s quarterly magazine on environmental issues (and quite readable, despite the title). Prince Edward Island has “a mandatory province-wide source-separated waste program,” while Nova Scotia bans all organic waste from its landfills. Both have extensive curbside pick-up programs for organic waste, which then gets composted.
Parts of Ontario do quite well, but the plains provinces — Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta — lag seriously behind. Residents of Alberta, according to Statistics Canada (fondly abbreviated to StatCan) 2006, generated over a thousand kilograms per person in garbage in 2005; the province hopes to more than halve this, to 500 kilograms per capita by 2010. Nova Scotia, which started below Alberta’s 2010 goal at 430 kilograms per capita, aims to reach 300 for 2010, for both residential and business sources. (“” – PDF, p.21.)
So, how are we in the United States doing compared to other countries? Not so well. The , which includes just about every industrialized nation on earth, tracks key environmental indicators for its 30 member countries, including generation and disposal of municipal solid waste. Compared to other industrialized nations, the U.S. fares poorly and Canada even worse. In 2005, Canada came dead last in a list of seventeen “peer countries” in terms of kilograms of MSW generated per person, as reported by the Conference Board of Canada. The United States came in fifteenth.
Source: “Environment: Municipal Waste Generation” Conference Board of Canada.
Even more significant, whereas the per-capita weight of MSW generated in the U.S. has increased by only a few percent between 1990 and 2008, Canada’s per-capita MSW output has increased by about 40% in the same time period. (See the graph below.)
Municipal Solid Waste:
Source: OECD “Key Environmental Indicators”
New York City and Long Island have not had any garbage barge crises recently, but they have hardly solved their garbage problems. As of 2007, New York City was exporting its garbage to five other states: New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina.
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. A fair amount of New York City’s garbage also goes to landfills in northern parts of its home state, most of it by truck. Since most major roads in New York State are toll roads, drivers prefer back roads which pass through numerous small towns. Residents have not been happy with this procession of garbage trucks rumbling by in the wee hours. In May of 2008, the governor banned NYC garbage trucks from these small byways, a decision that distressed the drivers and the companies they work for. (“.”)
The Big Apple is not alone in its struggles to find dumping spots for its garbage. The sad tale of Toronto (see the box below) illustrates the many complications and permutations that attend garbage disposal in the modern age.
The bottom line is this: establishing a landfill is an enormous and enormously expensive undertaking. It is harder and harder just to find a suitable site for a new one, especially near a major city. Reducing the amount of trash that reaches landfills and incinerators has become an urgent matter in many areas across North America. Hence the ban on yard waste, one of the easiest things to divert. We need to compost more and throw away less.
Where to put the garbage? A case study.
Toronto’s landfill woes, a national embarrassment in Canada, are probably less well-known in the United States. Toronto, located in the densely-populated Golden Horseshoe region of Canada, has seen its landfill options shrink as its population burgeons. The city proper has a population of 2.5 million, making it the fifth most populous city in North America. The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has a population of 5.5 million, and the Golden Horseshoe holds 8.1 million, or a quarter of Canada’s population.
When the City’s Keele Valley Landfill closed in 2002 filled to capacity, the city started trucking all of its solid waste to Michigan for disposal, a trip of 418 kilometers or about 260 miles one way. As a result, “the cost for waste disposal jumped from $18 per tonne to $53 per tonne.” (“” – PDF, 2009, p.17.)
The trucking operation has been plagued by a series of accidents, legal entanglements, and embarrassments. In 2004, a senior civil engineer named Tony O’Donohue revealed that Toronto was sending sludge — partially treated biosolids including human and medical waste — and not just the solid waste that had been claimed. This was a year after the driver of a sludge truck died when he tried to open a jammed door by hand, and was buried by the suddenly-released load which carried him into the pit. The death rated a meager one-hundred-forty-seven words (link no longer active) in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Meanwhile, opposition in Michigan was mounting. In 2004, the governor signed legislation allowing the state “emergency powers to close its border to waste in the event of imminent and substantial health, safety and environmental threats.” A couple years later, one of its senators sought federal legislation to halt the influx of garbage, (2006). That same year, the Department of Homeland Security became concerned with un-inspected loads crossing the border (2006). Then in 2007, Michigan residents filed a class-action suit over the stench from the landfill, largely a result of sludge dumping which was thereafter banned.
When Toronto bought Green Lane Landfill Site only 200 kilometers from Toronto near London, Ontario, that city got up in arms. The Oneida and Chippewa tribes of the Thames Nation, whose lands border the site, brought suit before settling for an undisclosed amount. The Munsee, another First Nation, are pursuing an independent settlement.
Is Your Landfill Leaking? Pollution Issues
“Landfill liners are temporary and chlorinated benzene in PCBs can cause leaks in certain liners.” – Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy, May 16, 2000 Toronto Meeting Minutes.
The environmental impact of landfills is a complicated issue. As pointed out above, composting household and garden waste helps prevent landfills from becoming overfilled which lessens the danger that they will leak into water tables or waterways. It also saves the gas or other fuel that would be used to transport those wastes and prevents that much carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and particulate matter from entering our atmosphere. This is not a minor concern; large cities must sometimes truck garbage hundreds of miles. (See the section above for the painful details.)
Space is not the only issue. Municipal landfills can pollute air, water and soil. And yard and table waste actually contribute significantly to all of these pollution problems. Why? First, because they are wet. Secondly, because they are organic.
Wet Garbage = Water Pollution
Wet garbage, including yard waste which is 50 to 70 % water, adds to the toxic stew of chemicals — household cleaners, antiperspirants, nail polish, paint and so on — that mix in a landfill. In old, unlined landfills, this leachate, diluted and made more mobile by rainwater, percolated down to the bottom of the fill. There, it would sink into the soil, spreading downwards and outwards in a characteristic brush-stroke shape known as a plume, contaminating soil and water as it moved. (See the Washington State U. Extension publication called “” – PDF, pp.2-3.)
Closing a landfill or capping it with cement does not stop its plume from advancing. Modern, sanitary landfills are usually lined to prevent such pollution and the leachate is drawn off and treated. However, it is naive to assume that a liner will never fail. In 1987, the EPA estimated that eventually any liner would leak (US EPA Federal Register, Aug 30, 1988, Vol.53, No.168). In 2000, a joint Canada/U.S. group working to monitor and reduce PCBs in the Great Lakes wrote that "landfill liners are temporary and chlorinated benzene in PCBs can cause leaks in certain liners." That it would not do so immediately isn’t reassuring. The longer a landfill is capped and abandoned, the less likely it is to be adequately monitored and a leak detected.
Organic Garbage = Air Pollution
Air pollution may seem an unlikely consequence of landfills, but in fact it is a major problem. The primary culprit is anything organic such as yard and food waste.
Waste at landfills is usually compressed to save space. Each day’s deposit is covered with a layer of dirt to discourage insects and rodents and to help shed rain and thus minimize leachate. So far, so good. But the result is an almost oxygen-free environment. When organic materials decompose in such anaerobic conditions they produce methane, a greenhouse gas.
Since composting produces carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, it’s reasonable to suspect that the compost/landfill choice is a classic six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other situation. The first produces carbon dioxide, the second produces methane. What’s the difference between them? Is it really worth the time and effort to keep organics out of landfills?
It does matter where the stuff degrades and how. CO2 is a major pollutant and a major problem. But methane is worse. According to the EPA, methane “remains in the atmosphere for 9-15 years” and “is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100-year period.” Methane is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide.
As recently as 2003, the highest producer of methane was landfills (EPA). They’re still one of the top three sources, the others being cows burps, or enteric fermentation, and leakage from the production of natural gas. Landfills have dipped to second place, largely because an increasing number of them have systems in place to collect the methane, which is either burned off or used to produce electrical power.
In 2006, the EPA reports that US landfills emitted almost 6 teragrams of methane, equal to over six and a half million U.S. tons. This is equivalent to about 125.7 teragrams of CO2 in its effect on global warming or 138,560,531 tons.
Flaring methane — burning it as it is collected from the landfill — may seem both wasteful and horribly polluting. And it is. But if you bear in mind that methane is so much more dangerous to the environment than carbon dioxide, then the practice that converts CH4 to CO2 appears in a different light.
When do landfills stop producing methane? No one really knows. A number of sources now suggest that landfills continue to produce methane in dangerous amounts well past the point at which it is economical to collect it and long after the 30 year period that the EPA requires closed landfills be monitored.
Burning off the methane at landfills produces CO2, still a greenhouse gas, but not as bad as methane. In terms of making a long-term dent in global warming – quickly – landfill improvements offer one of the best opportunities around.
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