Landfills are a waste of valuable space, but even more importantly, they greatly impact our planet. Landfills release large amounts of greenhouse gas, litter from landfills poisons marine life and surrounding areas of land, plastic from landfills takes up to 1000 years to decompose, and landfills leach hazardous waste into the ground or require that the toxic leachate is treated by a wastewater facility, which still releases microplastics and some toxic chemicals into your local waterways.
Landfills Release Large Amounts of Greenhouse Gas
Landfills are the third largest source of methane in the United States, producing about 14% of all methane emissions. They are also considered a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions; per the most recent report, U.S. landfills released an estimated 122.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) of methane into the atmosphere in 2021; this represents 16.9 percent of the total U.S. anthropogenic methane emissions across all sectors. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, having up to 8 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide (CO2) per molecule over a twenty-year period. What is worse, while some methane can be collected and used for energy, it is IMPOSSIBLE to collect enough methane from a landfill to make a sizeable difference in the amount of Methane emitted from said landfill, including Short Mountain Landfill in Lane County, which is one of the largest Methane emitting Residential Waste Landfills in Oregon, emitting . This is partially because of waste management's practices of selling space in the landfill to the highest bidders- funding the expansion of Short Mountain and pushing the need to expand our local landfill in the first place.
Litter from Landfills is Responsible for Poisoning Animal Life
Litter that makes its way into waterways, the side of the street, or the ocean can be hazardous to animal life. Plastics are one of the most damaging pollutants in our world, especially our oceans, and it harms aquatic, land, and even bird lives. Plastic is a threat not only to the food chain but also to the environment, economy, and future generations of our planet. Since not all plastic is created the same, it is essential to remind everyone that #3 PVC or V plastics are more toxic, as they off-gas Dioxin while breaking down, heated up, or eaten by an animal.
Plastic from Landfills can Take up to 1000 Years to Break down
The United States produces over 100 million tons of plastic annually. The vast majority of this plastic is not recycled, and according to Greenpeace, only 23% of it is even collected for recycling. Most of the rest ends up in landfills or oceans. Of the approximate 23,000,000 pounds of plastic collected for recycling, less than 9% is recycled, resulting in about 2,300,000 pounds of plastic materials that are generally recycled and reintroduced to the markets.
Plastic is made from oil or natural gas, non-renewable resources that take millions of years to form naturally under the right conditions. Once used, plastic can take anywhere from 500–1000 years to break down—but this slow process means it will never fully break down into smaller components like carbon dioxide and water that can be absorbed back into the environment. Instead, it will remain as small fragments called microplastics that contaminate soil and water systems on their way out of landfills or garbage dumps where they were originally dumped.
Landfills Leach Hazardous Waste
Leachate is a toxic liquid that drains from landfills that can contaminate groundwater. It is produced when rainwater or snowmelt seeps through the landfill, picking up toxic chemicals and draining them into the landfill liner/holding ponds or the soil.
Leachate contains several chemicals, heavy metals, microplastics and other toxic substances that harm the environment. Some landfills are designed to contain leachate by lining their pits with layers of plastic guttering connected to pumps that collect the leachate before it gets into the groundwater below. This is the case with Short Mountain Landfill outside of Eugene, Oregon. After the leachate is collected, it is then trucked to the wastewater facility 17 miles away for treatment and disposal.
By 2020, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aims for all US municipal solid waste facilities (MSWFs) to have some leachate collection system in place to prevent any contamination or leakage into surrounding soil and water sources, assuming that the liner does not form cracks, tears, or sustain any damage.
Landfills are a Huge Waste of Valuable Land Space
Landfills are a huge waste of valuable land space. They take up valuable real estate that could be used for productive purposes, like farming, housing, or riparian efforts. A landfill requires an enormous amount of space to contain all the trash that goes into it, and this space is often taken from natural landscapes. Landfills can also cause problems for nearby communities because they create air pollution, a roadside litter problem, and potential water contamination through runoff when it rains; these problems make it harder for people living nearby to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and have a clean community.
Landfills are a waste of resources because they require tons upon tons of materials to build and maintain them—not just the land itself but also fencing around them, heavy machinery needed to drive vehicles into trenches where trash is buried deep underground, concrete walls built at different levels within the site so that rainwater doesn't seep in too easily.
Another impact on the use of space could be seen as how disinviting the landfill looks to visitors, potentially impacting tourism and outside investment in a community. Let's again take a look at Short Mountain Landfill. Anyone traveling north on I5 to Eugene will drive by Lane County's Landfill as it is well within sight of the road, about 100 feet from the highway. This unsightly pile of rubbish grows in size daily and, after recent expansions, will continue to grow alongside I5 for decades to come.
The Impact of Landfills on our Planet is Enormous!
Landfills are responsible for a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions. A typical landfill produces about 1.4 tons of methane gas, which is more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane is also the main component of natural gas, so if you've ever turned on your stove and smelled that sweet, sweet odor coming from your kitchen, you were smelling methane.
As landfills age they tend to have more problems with leaching toxic substances into the ground, which results in poisoning marine life and contaminating drinking water sources. Suppose a landfill sits near an aquifer (a body of fresh underground water). In that case, there's no way that it won't eventually contaminate it with all sorts of nasty stuff like industrial waste or even just plain garbage!
When we think of our planet and the impact that humans have had on it, it can be overwhelming. But by increasing awareness and taking action, we can make a difference. You're doing your part by reducing your carbon footprint by choosing reusable items over disposable ones, lets hope that local waste management continues to do their part by working towards an overall reduction in waste going to the landfill. As you have learned, all waste has an impact, and no single item or collection of materials is inert in a landfill.