Landfills are generally perceived by communities as a risk, affecting soil and water contamination, air pollution, and environmental diseases due to toxic substances which may end up detrimentally impacting households and communities. A question we must ask is: if our solid waste is not disposed of in landfills, where else would it go?
According to the EPA, in 2018 the US generated more than 258 million tons of municipal solid waste per year. The solid waste described includes disposed packaging, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, and everything else that gets thrown in garbage cans. However, of the 258 million tons of waste generated, only 34.6% is recycled, resulting in the remaining 65.4% of waste being sent to rapidly filling solid waste landfills.
The topic of landfill location and potential risks have become a hot topic with many conflicting viewpoints. For example, the state of California — a leading advocate of alternative energy sources, conservation, solid waste recycling, and business innovation — maintains a front seat in environmental startup business funding. Located south of Los Angeles, Orange County has implemented an innovative waste management program that targets the conversion of methane gas to energy and the detoxification of chemicals as key business metrics.
According to the California Energy Commission landfill gases produced through organic matter decomposition “are fed into a collection system which consists of a series of wells drilled into the landfill through a piping system to later produce electricity”. In this process, the methane gas captured in these landfill wells drives turbines that generate electricity that is then carried to neighborhoods via distribution lines.
Across four solid waste landfill sites, the Orange County Waste and Recycling Department produced 420,000 megawatt hours (MWh/year) in 2018 as a byproduct of gas to energy production. According to The US Energy Information Administration, the average US home uses roughly 10.7 MWh/year, but the average home in Orange County uses only 6 MWh/year. To put this in perspective, the 420,000 MWh produced in the four gas-to-energy landfill sites is enough to power 70,000 homes in Orange County. While this is an impressive number, the county households surpass 1.1 million, making the energy contribution from these landfills less than 7% of the total homes.
While generating electricity from gas to energy at solid waste landfills is helpful, it does not solve the core issue of the 258 million tons of waste being deposited into US landfills annually. Paired with the increasingly sparse space left in many landfills, it is crucial that waste reduction methods are employed for greater efficiency.
To help reduce solid waste many of the Orange County communities are investing in awareness campaigns to reduce solid landfill waste through a number of programs including recycling mandates, financial incentives, and restrictions on non-biodegradable packaging materials. For example, the City of Irvine supports a variety of environmental programs, including climate planning, earth day, and various energy, recycling, and waste efforts to list a few. One of the most notable programs is America Recycles Day which occurs annually on November 15th and “aims to spread awareness on how to recycle, which recycled products to buy, and how to reduce waste” according to the City of Irvine.
While businesses and scientists are hard at work to discover effective means to process solid waste, it is critical that local communities and individuals do their part to reduce consumption and support recycling. A sustainable future is only possible through reducing our waste, reusing materials, recycling whenever possible, and being more conscious of the materials we use and dispose of are actions we can take in each household.
When these efforts are aligned with communities, states, and even nationwide awareness programs, we will be able to target the fundamental over-consumption issues driving increased solid waste and landfills.