For the last thirty years, my life has been garbage. I used
to be an apologist for landfill but now I am into total recovery.
When I first got into this field in 1970s I was a rabid recycler,
I then spent 5 years with an engineering company and 20 years with
County Departments of Public Works siting, permitting operating,
mitigating and, in general, apologizing for landfills. Today, I
am retired from government and I am a rabid recycler again, promoting
zero waste programs.
After all this time I have come to realize that landfills are
stupid. I recently testified at a hearing on Environmental Impacts
of Landfill on Urban communities organized by Senator Gloria Romero,
Chair of the Select Committee on Urban Landfills. The following
were questions the committee asked and my answers.
What are the potential effects
of land filling on ground water and surface water?
Controlled burns on land were advancements to uncontrolled burning
or dumping discards in the rivers, lakes or oceans. With the banning
of activities that contributed to air and water pollution, land
disposal of discards became the dominant disposal management technology
of the seventies. Although most towns had a dumping area, the fires
polluted the air, thus sanitary landfill with daily cover instead
of daily fires became state of the art.
From the sixties to the eighties what was disposed in Landfill
was not regulated very well. Early State standards were prescriptive,
they said that you cannot impact the environment, but there were
no directions on what to do, only what couldn't happen. We got off
to a bad start in California.
Organics turn into water during decomposition and heat accelerates
this decomposition. The evaporation of water in landfill theory
is that day-to-day heat could remove more water than what was in
the landfill. But in a covered landfill, the heat actually accelerates
organic decomposition of vegetative debris and food waste. The result
is that residual petrol-chemicals mix with water into a toxic brew.
Add e-waste, crush with a compactor, cover and leave the rest to
Canyons are waterways carved out of centuries of drainage. Trench
systems are in flat areas, above the ground water. Fifty and hundred
year floods recreate these drainage systems. In the case of trenches,
the water can find its natural level. The first and oldest sanitary
landfill was used only for municipal waste, is today a super-fund
site because of ground water pollution.
What is the composite
make up of leachate and why is it dangerous?
There are landfills that are still pumping the pollution plume
of TCE and PCE, 15 years later. They just don't go away. The citizens
near the landfill still have water purifiers on their wells. These
volatile organics are carcinogenic to humans if ingested in quantities
Treatment systems for surface and under ground water protection
are costly and the waste must be processed in wastewater treatment
facilities. In many cases these systems are not able to remove heavy
metals and organic solvents.
What are the potential
effects of land filling on air quality?
The byproduct of decomposition is methane. We really don't know
how long decomposition will take place. There are landfills in California
that have been closed 20 years and are still generating methane.
The utility grid has not obtained much electricity from landfill
generating units up to now. Most methane in California is flared.
What are the dangers
of landfill methane emissions?
PVC pipes may be the cause of chlorine found in some landfill
air emissions. Global Warming and attack on the ozone layers are
some of the impacts of flaring or just letting methane diffuse into
the environment. Landfill emissions are one of the greatest single
contributor to global warming in the United States.
If landfills are so unsafe and obsolete as many assert, why
do we keep using landfills as a method of dealing with our waste?
State and federal governments subsidize raw material extraction
and provide depletion allowances of billions of dollars annually.
The one-way charge for collection of mixed discards to be taken
to landfill is an example of welfare for wasting. Waste flow contracts
that commit tonnage over time with penalties for not meeting commitments
are subsidizing wasting. Current inflexible collection contracts
and franchises encourage landfill and wasting.
Not looking at the long-term costs result in subsidizing wasting.
If the eventual rail haul cost is $80 a ton and the tip today is
$25, shouldn't the charge be $80, to fund the transition and infrastructure.
If the price of wasting went up by 300 percent, wouldn't the recycle
rate go up?
Lack of training for public works leaders in the areas of resource
conservation and recovery is another reason wasting continues.
What can be done
to strengthen existing state landfill requirements and waste management
laws to protect the public health and safety and the environment?
Enforce existing rules. Ban toxic items, all electronic discards,
and organic materials from land burial. Pass producer responsibility
laws that require the manufacture to take the product after lifecycle
is finished (add recycling to the system cost).
What are your thoughts
on the National Recycling Coalition's contention that; neither present
nor foreseeable technology, including bioreactors, provides the
capability to safely control discharges to groundwater or air emissions
that threaten human health and the environment whenever decomposable
organic material is discarded in the ground?
Absolutely, it's the water that causes the leachate and methane.
What are the environmental
effects of alternatives to land filling?
Burning is not an alternative. Non-burning transformation is
expensive and not proven anywhere at municipal scale.
Zero waste is; Organizing collections for resource recovery,
Mandating recycling, Composting organics and food dirty paper, Making
manufacturers of durable goods responsible for designing recyclability
into their products and buying recycled materials to make their
Environmental Effects include; Resources for the future, Jobs
from discards, Conservation of a forest, mineral and petrochemical
reserves, more open space and natural habitat, less contamination
of drinking water contaminated by disposal. And soil amendment to
assist agriculture in revitalizing soil.
Landfill is obsolete, polluting, a waste of valuable resources,
and just plain stupid.