The Landfills Of Today
I once had a professor that, during my failed attempt to learn Indonesian, made a comment that was deceptively simple, but utterly profound. I believe he was paraphrasing his mentor when he said, “after two weeks, you will think you know everything, but after two years you’ll realize you know nothing.” I have often found this sentiment applies to many of life’s circumstances. Today, I hope you keep this idea in mind as we delve into the complicated world of landfills.
Luckily, you don’t need to understand the minutiae of the waste stream to know that positive, directed action is vitally important for a cleaner world. Those pictures that you see of piles of garbage? Those are sorting stations. Any material that cannot be sold or processed for profit ends up going to the dump. But there is a tipping point when the process of sorting becomes too costly to be offset by income generated by waste sold to recycling centers. So what you do need to know is that it will take all of us, doing our parts, to fix our broken system.
The dump is a big hole in the ground. We line it with synthetic hard-shell liners, clay, and various, engineered geotextiles. We run pipes in and out of the hole; methane, water, and leachate (we’ll come back to that in a minute) all need to circulate to properly maintain the hole.
So let’s talk about the issues.
- Leachate Garbage is full of liquid, and liquid is the enemy of the landfill. Compacting the refuse into tightly packed cubes, called cells, drains much of that liquid. But rainwater and the remaining locked-in moisture will dribble down like the Plinko disc on The Price Is Right. That water is infused with contaminates and is referred to as leachate. Pipes in the hole drain the leachate into a collection pool. This sludgy mess is processed at waste treatment plants, along with sewage. Cross-contamination with groundwater and freshwater sources, as well as surface leakage, are credible threats with a history of…well, happening.
- Scaling Landfills are what happens when people forget how to compost organic material. Because, and here’s the secret reveal, a combination of composting and recycling is the key to cleaning our waste stream. Other attempted methods, like burning our refuse are not the answer. But since large-scale compost piles have a habit of igniting, they require engineering. So we bury what we can’t, or can’t be bothered, recovering. But by covering and smothering (if only this were about hashbrowns) we are quenching the ability of bacteria, worms, and insects to naturally break down the materials, as well as ensuring our refuse continues to create harmful greenhouse gases for decades, possibly centuries, to come. Long-term requirements are why those old, closed dumps – which are increasingly becoming parks – are dotted with pipes, valves, and processing stations, despite inactivity. The closing of a waste site does not end the work.
- Long-term decomposition Finally, we have the long-term issues; these are the problems that will continue to need attention for hundreds of years. Once the clay is compacted, it will lose efficacy, and the contaminants will break through the barrier. And speaking of barriers, remember that plastic shell that lines the hole? Since it is synthetic, it will break down at around the same pace as the contents of the cells, but total decomposition is not required for leakage to occur. The cracks that will form will allow cross-contamination with groundwater long before the components return to nature.
- Plastic Just call me a harpy. I will never stop complaining about plastic to anyone who will listen. Or read. Doesn’t matter, as long as you understand the point: plastic does not break down the way organic matter breaks down. With China recently refusing our dirty, contaminated plastic waste, Barbie’s Dream House and last week’s milk jug are much more likely to end up in the garbage pile than the recycling stream.
Landfills Are What Happens When There Are Too Many People For Compost
It always strikes me as humorous (no haha) when industries respond to sustainability demands by selling ancient techniques with modern names. It never surprises me when the best solution is an adaptation of a practice humans utilized for (hundreds of) thousands of years. Garbage is no different. You will hear terms like Aerobic Bioreactor and Anaerobic Bioreactor, but I promise these are just fancy words for big compost pile.
Compost piles need three ingredients to work: balanced organic matter*, air, and water. For this reason, Aerobic Bioreactors work the best. While composting will take place without air, the result is a cloud of noxious gases and “compost” that still needs to be composted before it can be used on food crops. Circulating air and water through a pile will help create a thermophilic reaction, which is step one in a three-step process.
Bioreactors Vs. Landfills
The benefits of bioreactors are boundless; this system solves almost every issue related to landfills and solid waste disposal in general.
- Breaking down the organic matter will allow for facile capture of recyclables like metal and glass, post decomposition
- Like any composting system, the result is a valued commodity which generates profit for the industry
- The land is infinitely reusable; once capacity is reached, no new sites will be needed
- Flooding the market with compost will help heal the land; currently, our sewerage systems have contributed to a phosphorus and nitrogen deficiency in the earth which compost can rectify
- Using aerobic digestion will greatly reduce the greenhouse gases created by traditional landfills and anaerobic systems
- Aerobic digestion also ensures the leachate is less acidic, and less harmful to the groundwater and local flora; this kind of leachate achieves positive results when used on farms
The only issue that composting is unable to deal with (and I don’t think this is hyperbole, composting can literally eat TNT and rejuvenate nuclear test sites), is plastic. With a life expectancy of thousands of years, plastic products will outlive the containment system we currently have. And yes, fancy enzymes are coming that can eat plastic, but they are not yet commercially available, and already have their work cut out for them with the microbeads and plastic filaments lining our beaches and developing property in our oceans.
*Balanced organic matter contains the right mixture of carbon and nitrogen, is an integral part of the composting process, and would be easily and naturally achieved in a well-designed system.
What You Can Do Today
There are a bunch of straightforward adaptations that you can make in your daily life to ensure that you are not contributing to the problem more than you have to. Many of these steps are congruent with the general rules of socially conscious living, so incorporating them into your life now will make your future green ventures even more successful.
- Reduce. Also, reduce. And don’t forget to reduce. There is a fundamental reason why Reduce is the first “R”. By not accepting excess or synthetic packaging at point of sale, we don’t create the waste initially. It can be as easy as frequenting local farmers’ markets, or as challenging as making products for yourself (think homesteading).
- Compost. If you have room in your yard, start a pile. If you live or work within a municipality that offers industrial composting, get a bin and fill it. If you don’t have space for your own compost heap, get or make a vermicomposter (worm composting) and at least take care of your food scraps; plus, you’ll grow the healthiest houseplants in the neighborhood.
- Just say no to synthetics. Whether it’s the packaging, a piece of clothing, or literally anything else, all synthetic material will eventually end up in a landfill. We can recycle glass and metal. All organic waste will compost. Only synthetics, like plastic, cannot be recycled (they can only be downcycled) or composted. In the anaerobic environment of a trash pile, this plastic will require extra centuries to break down, and even then it is likely to leach into the surrounds as pollution before it actually decomposes.
- Follow the money. Remember that waste disposal and recycling are both profit-driven industries; information provided by a private company or government institution may not tell the whole truth, as the elimination of all waste (i.e., if everyone had their own humanure compost piles) means the death of their industry.
What You Can Do Tomorrow
You’ve committed to living a lifestyle as close to zero waste as possible. You’ve all but eliminated plastic from your life. You compost what you can at home, and sort the rest for municipal composting, with only the tiniest amount left over for the landfill. And yet, you want to do more. Well, lucky for you, we have reached the tipping point; it has become imperative that we do better than we currently are doing. I love a good crisis – it inspires the best solutions. When humanity is pushed up against a wall, we fight our way out with everything we can muster. Our situation now is no different. With the pressure mounting for industries to operate more sustainably, your voice, your opinions, and your hard work are more valuable than ever. So if you’re looking for your next step, let me make some suggestions:
- Find dumps local to you and start researching – reach out to owners and operators about converting the land to an Aerobic Bioreactor system or
- If the landfill is near full (they all have pre-planned closure dates), this is an opportune time to start organizing a park design
- An industry that’s cropping up is landfill recycling – people are going through old landfill cells and looking for metal because of its substantial lifespan – in response to demand for local raw material, you can become involved in the effort
- Get involved with (or donate money to) activist groups like the Plastic Pollution Coalition
- Put this information in the hands of people who can do something about it: your local council and state government are suitable places to start
In conclusion, landfills suck, compost piles rock, and I am once again confounded by humanity’s inability to retain important information.