As Landfills Decay Here, Elsewhere In The World They’re Coping Better

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February 1, 2011 · Posted in Commentary 


The United States is no longer the leader in waste disposal technology. Like many other technological advancements, the country finds itself behind nations like China, Japan and Germany. Considering the country’s current recession, both local governments and private businesses struggle to move forward in relieving the threat of pollution caused by landfills. In Southern California, the state’s largest facility, Puente Hills Landfill is closing, and the available land to take on the excess garbage is limited. This trend is indicative of what many communities throughout the nation are facing. This paper will study the different methods used in waste disposal, examine some of the most innovative strategies in other countries, and finally, analyze the crisis that California may be facing in the near future.

Most Americans pay little attention to what happens to their garbage once it is thrown away and hauled to a landfill by a waste management truck. Many people make an effort to sort out the recyclable waste from the regular garbage, and disperse it in the appropriate bin for pickup. What happens after that is magic; the garbage seems to disappear. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Most of the waste stays relatively intact buried underground in an atmosphere with no oxygen. Odds are an old newspaper thrown away ten years ago might still be in readable condition. If a landfill is not maintained properly, it can contaminate both the atmosphere and ground water. These dangerous emissions have been devastating to the environment in the past. Landfill technology, no matter how much improved, is not sustainable mainly because the land is limited, and the older facilities have closed improperly leaving the surrounding land vulnerable to underground pollution. Americans on average dispose of 50,000 pounds of garbage per person every year, so it is vital that the government looks into better methods of waste disposal.

Even though there are other methods for waste disposal such as incineration, recycling and composting, Landfills remain the most popular approach in the United States. The biggest criticism of landfills is that they are palliative. In other words, they are a quick fix that promotes the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. The truth is that because the conditions within the layers of garbage are anaerobic, decomposition performs at a very slow pace. This creates storage space for garbage, not the environmental assimilation that happens to most decomposing substances.

Landfills have and will continue to contribute significant underground and atmospheric pollution. There are over 13,000 landfills in the US including 3,091 active and 10,000 old municipal solid waste sights. This is a frightening number considering most are older MSW landfills. Today, most of the newest, state-of-the-art sites are stable, but the real problem lies in the future. The government imposes a thirty-year regulation of the landfill facilities. After that, grass is planted and life goes on; places like golf courses or parks are built on top of the landfills. The real problem is this: it takes bacteria in non-oxygen environments decades to help decompose the waste. The old facilities have only a thirty-year life expectancy for the plastic lining. Even the clay lining will have problems after a significant amount of time. According to John Tillman Lyle, in his article, “Waste as a Resource,” “There will be a plague of leaking landfills in the twenty-first century.” The biggest threat to nature is the contamination of the underground water and the methane gas, which is one of the most hazardous gases to the earth’s ozone layer. The primary concern remains in the condition of the oldest sites, where it is somewhat unknown the extent of the current tears and leaks in the plastic lining.

Most countries including the United States use landfills because the process is relatively inexpensive, even for the most advanced and environmentally friendly sites. Currently, there are two primary designs of landfills: Sanitary and old Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfills. Sanitary landfills use a thin layer of clay at the bottom of the fill to prevent water leaking, also known as leachate. A layer of soil is covered over the waste every time new garbage is deposited. These facilities also include an advanced liner system, leachate collection, and gas recovery systems to alleviate methane gas. The old MSW landfills use a plastic lining system, which has been susceptible to cracking; in fact, the majority of all leaks found in U.S landfills are of these facilities. Even these newest methods are cost-effective; the lack of environmental security in the old sites is the result of lower standards and lack of technological innovation – not money.

Recycling is a popular alternative and it represents around 33 percent of waste management in the United States. Ultimately, this is the most environmentally friendly system, but many areas of the United States do not make it accessible. One authority found that the majority of Americans, when given an easy routine by a waste management company, practice recycling to the best of their ability.

Incineration, although common in many European countries, is not popular in the U.S. The pollution from the smoke has proved to be harmful to the environment. Much of the waste that is incinerated is from medical facilities, and the EPA is imposing strong regulations to the on-site hospital buildings to reduce emissions. These facilities are already using steaming methods to sterilize waste instead of burning it. Finally, composting is a great way to allow a quick, natural decomposition; however, most of the facilities are non-commercial and specialize in mostly yard trimmings and manure. For composting to really be affective, people around the world need to be introduced to the procedure, as it is extremely effective when done at home – especially for food waste.

In California, the topic of waste disposal is complex. Compared to most of the United States, California’s disposal policies are admirable. The problem is that the state currently struggles to implement them. Programs such as fixing methane leaks and recycling are in motion, but lack of space and pollution are still winning the battle.

The thinking behind waste disposal has to shift away from the “dig and bury” philosophy behind landfills. David Honda, president of DH Honda Construction and Sunshine Canyon Landfill Environmental Affairs Commissioner, says that the threat of massive environmental problems is on the horizon for this immediate generation. Even though methods like recycling have improved dramatically over the last few decades, it is not enough to offset the current routine of digging and burying. It is easy to recycle; California makes it very accessible. The local waste disposal companies give most households a special recycling bin. Sacramento, for instance, claims that all residents in the tri-county area have access to curbside recycling.

California at one time was proactive in facing the challenges that come with managing waste disposal. Unfortunately, the current economic crisis has kept most of the cutting edge technological strategies out of the question. Honda says that given California’s lack of funds, the only way the state can make waste disposal sustainable is to implement a strong recycling policy. In other words, it is simply the only policy that can keep California from having a waste crisis similar to those in developing countries. With that said, if one assumes that economic conditions will improve, then so will the advancement in waste disposal techniques.

There are two major projects that have recently gone under in California that were vital to the future management of waste. The first was The Integrated Waste Management Board (IWMB), which developed the Organics Roadmap to 2020 in an effort to increase the sustainability of landfills and waste by promoting composting. The second was Compostable Organics Out of Landfills (COOL). In 2007, this organization vowed to increase the harmless practice of composting as a way to naturally decompose waste. The goal was to have this policy implemented by 2012. It appears that this is unlikely. Honda further explains that organizations like these are not receiving grants or any funding from the state. The future is now in the hands of lobbyists who are trying to convince legislatures the importance of addressing the problem. The bottom line is that private companies are out of the picture.

The problem becomes even more excruciating when examining the up-coming closure of Puente Hills Landfill. The site currently handles 10-13 thousand tons of garbage per day; once the site closes, there is no guaranty of where the waste will go. A proposal of sending the garbage out into the desert has been exercised, but the only way to transport the trash out there is to utilize the train system. Honda says that Union Pacific, the only train company operating in Southern California has refused to take on the responsibility. They are limiting their business to freight that comes out of the Los Angeles harbor, and that there is only so many locomotive trailers available. Other sites such as Sunshine Canyon Landfill are struggling to stay open because many of the local residents are complaining about the fumes and diesel from the actual trucks. Honda concludes that finding a new place for Puente Hills’ waste is the most important event in California’s near future.

If California recovers economically, the state would be a leader in waste disposal policies. Honda says that the state has looked into and plans to model its disposal techniques after countries like Germany and Japan. For example, the company Ebara Japan has been a leader in converting waste into energy. With sophisticated pumping systems, they have been able to achieve waste disposal without any fumes. The company’s corporate philosophy is as follows: “To contribute broadly to society by offering superior technologies and optimal services in the areas of water, the air, and the environment.” With that said, the company has successfully created heating in pools and spas that are superior to conventional heating. Ebara has the ability to recycle absolutely everything. Honda feels confident that this technology will eventually be utilized in California. He adds, “We (California) can lead the way, but we have been side railed because of the budget crisis. The most important politicians keep taking mandatory furlough days.”

In Germany, it is simply the law to recycle. It has been this way since 1996; in fact, the country is one of the most recycling efficient countries in the world. Germany recovers and reuses 70 percent of its waste while the United States recovered only 33 percent in 2007. Germany uses a technique called “Waste Avoidance” which is a policy that starts with the manufacturers. The laws are strict when comes to making plastics, electronics, and packaging. The bottom line is that businesses have to keep in mind at all times the idea of eliminating waste. What is comes down to in California and the rest of the United States is awareness – both public and private. While Japan utilizes the most innovative methods in recycling, Germany sets the bar with public awareness. Germany’s strict policies are attainable in the United States because they are the most cost effective.

There are alternatives to using landfills. While it is critical that the United States continues to exercise the idea of composting, incineration, and waste avoidance, the single most important tool is recycling. In California especially, its waste recovery rate has to come closer to Germany’s 70 percent. In conclusion, while landfills are considered an affective method of waste management, the system is far from perfect. Waste from the landfills produces excess methane gas and water pollution. Considering the sensitive condition of the earth’s atmosphere and climate, better methods of waste management will need to be put in place in order for sustainable living.



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