by
Richard Anthony
November 2001 Recycle Scene
 

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 time.

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 overtime.

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 products.

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.