According to the EPA, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash, of which 87 million tons, or about 34%, was recycled and composted. Waste generation has increased to about 4.4 pounds a day per person with 1.5 pounds being composted or recycled. Most of that waste ends up in a landfill, in essence a relatively inexpensive, earth moving operation. The downside of using landfills is that they remove valuable lands from other uses for generations to come, and because decomposition generates explosive methane gas, and waste settles over time, it is impossible to build any structure over landfills once they are closed. The situation is exacerbated since most landfills are located close to urban centers where development pressure is greatest.
But let’s have a look what happens inside a landfill. As it turns out, the waste is not as dormant as it may appear, but has a life of its own instead. Deep inside microbes are feeding on organic materials and produce chemical changes. Settlement takes place as the lower parts of the landfill are compressed by the weight above.
Infiltrating rainwater leaches heavy metals, PCBs, lead, solvents, dioxin, DDT, benzene, CFCs, furans from the myriad of products and substances dumped in the landfill, forming a contaminated liquid that sooner or later percolates downward and – unless we install some barriers – pollutes the underlying ground water. Today, around 45,000 different chemicals are produced and about 1,000 new ones are added each year. Unfortunately, many of these substances are toxic and can damage parts of the complex and fragile environmental web. And equally disconcerting, many of chemicals find their way into our landfills. Even modern landfills with liners and leachate collection systems are a problem. If they are not leaking now, they will probably start leaking within a few decades of their closure. The use of modern technology simply postpones the inevitable.
In addition to the leachate, landfills also cause atmospheric pollution. The decomposition processes release gases such as methane, carbon, dioxide, vinyl chloride and hydrogen sulphide, which slowly seep into the air around the landfill. This impairs air quality in the immediate vicinity and, on a larger scale, contributes to greenhouse effect and global warming.
The production of consumer goods and their distribution to the customer make full use of the latest technological development, while the disposal of the remains is still carried out on stone-age-level. Landfills do not only represent an unproductive land use but also fail to meet the sustainability principle.
In the production and consumption of the myriad of products few seem to care what happens at the end of their utility range. Never before and by no previous society have comparable large amounts of products and such dangerous substances been converted in such a short time into waste. In order to avoid a total waste crisis, the engineering in production must be complemented by an efficient and non-polluting waste management, which aims to minimize waste at the source, in the production process, and transforms the inevitable remaining wastes into relatively harmless substances that can be safely absorbed in soil, water and air.
When considering the costs, decision makers more often than not, focus on the short-term cost of landfills when compared to incineration or waste-to-energy conversion plants. What is frequently omitted is the fact that landfills are effectively permanent facilities, which, unlike incineration or conversion plants, can not be easily after 30-50 years to make room for more advanced technologies or entirely different uses. In fact, while the land used for an incinerator/conversion plant could be sold and used for other purposes, landfills will need to be monitored and maintained for centuries after they close.
The most crucial factor is however, that the costs of damage to the environment, the value of Earth’s natural ecosystems and the services they provide are not fully captured in commercial markets in the way economic services and manufactured commodities are valued. To properly reflect the value of Earth’s ecosystems, additional cost factors should be included in the financial analysis of waste management facilities. For example, landfill costs should be increased to account for the permanent loss of land resources, the exposure of groundwater to leachate, and the atmospheric pollution caused by gas emissions.
Many of the processes and technologies needed to create a circular economy are available today or within reach. What’s lacking is our resolve and determination to change course.