Landfilling is an obsolete way of handling the thousand pounds of stuff most of us discard each year. Buried in the ground, landfills create enormous problems, which has led to a growing movement, called Zero Waste (or darn close) to divert from landfills all of our discards that can be recycled or will decompose. Among landfills’ leading problems are –

Climate change. Chief among those problems, landfills bear a major responsibility for overheating our planet. When the food scraps, grass clippings, paper and other things that rot are buried deep in the ground, they decay in an oxygen-starved (or anaerobic) environment, which generates methane as a byproduct of decomposition. Because methane is a greenhouse gas on steroids and because, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, most of that methane escapes, landfills are the fourth largest source of warming gases in the U.S. For this and other reasons related to landfills’ problems, more than 100 cities are now diverting from landfills those organic discards that generate methane in order to eliminate the problem at the source. Read more.

Toxic air emissions. The major near-term threat to the health of those living around landfills probably comes from releases of toxic substances into the air carried by the wind as much as five miles from the site. To date, EPA has ignored statutory mandates to strictly regulate these emissions. Citizen action is needed to prod the agency to finally act to protect public health. Read more.

Groundwater contamination. Leaking landfills have been the focus of public attention, and, already leaks are too frequent. But, the more immediate and serious threats come from elsewhere – from landfill covers that are almost certain to fail soon after care ends, and from leachate drainage lines prone to clogging. These are more likely to lead to catastrophic and expensive site failures long before the liners deteriorate. Read more.

Taxpayer bailout. Landfills are likely to cost taxpayers billions of dollars in future clean-up costs. For one thing the barriers meant to protect against major site failures are short-lived, while the threats persist for centuries. For another, today’s mega-sized sites can be so massive that they would dwarf a hundred football stadiums, raise the consequences of site failures enormously. Finally, EPA's regulations intended to protect the public and the taxpayer after the site is closed at best only cover minor costs for a limited time. After that, major site failures and taxpayer bailouts are inevitable at privately owned sites in non-arid in parts of the country. There is no end-of-pipe “fix” with regulations for inherently dangerous facilities that require perpetual care. Instead, landfills intractable problems need to be addressed at its source – that is the decomposable fraction of our discards that keep the contaminated site biologically active for centuries. Read more.

Landfill Management, Municiple Solid Waste Management

Landfills problems

In 1960, almost all discards from households, commercial establishments, offices and institutions were originally buried in landfills. Only 6% were recycled in rudimentary programs. By the end of the 1980s, however, concerns over landfills’ problems grew. Initially, those concerned focused on whether there was a crisis in terms of landfill shortages, but as those worries waned, anxiety grew about the groundwater contamination, air pollution and later greenhouse gas emissions from the facilities.

By 2010, this resulted in a dramatic increase in recycling to, across America, one-third of discards, and many parts of the country where the environmental ethic was stronger, or landfill prices high, recycling exceeded 50%. For awhile, incineration grew as well, to 14% in 1990, although its share has subsided since then.

Resource Conservation Recovery Act

In 1975, the first of several laws affecting landfills and recycling as enacted, called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). That law was largely advisory. By 1984, in the aftermath of the tragedy at Love Canal, a stronger law with prescriptive requirements was enacted that was incorporated into RCRA and called the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984. Subtitle D of these Amendments established the first national minimum landfill standards intended to prevent landfills from leaking and contaminating drinking water supplies, including provisions that provide for location restrictions on sites too close to groundwater or close to airports; design requirement for liners below and above the site and leachate collection lines to extract the garbage juice that drains to the bottom; operational requirements to minimize nuisances and dumping of hazardous wastes, extract gas and leachate in collection pipes as well as to monitor for leaks; closure rules intended to seal the site for as long as the liners last; and postclosure maintenance rules to care for the site for 30 years, and financial assurances to partially cover some long-term liabilities for those 30 years with up-front guarantees.

Environmental Protection Agency

In 1970, after the overwhelming public support for environmental protection on the first Earth Day, inspired by then Senator Gaylord Nelson, President Nixon issued an executive order establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to subsume the disparate federal efforts spread out across dozens of departments, agencies and commissions. The first administrator was William Ruckelshaus.

Between 1975 and 1984, EPA’s responsibilities for solid waste issues, focused on landfills and later recycling, grew, and the agency was ultimately charged with adopting the first minimum federal standards for landfills, which previously had been a matter of state responsibility, although in fact, more often, open dumps and landfills had gone unregulated.

^ Back to Top