Landfills, A Modern Barbarism

Post by John Michael

Today is Monday, and the streets of my neighborhood are strewn with trash. Last night, my neighbors and I set our bags of garbage along the sidewalk in expectation of the morning pickup. In the hours between then and now, poor people looking to make a bit of money tore through our trash bags in search of recyclables like plastic bottles or cardboard boxes. As I went for a stroll this morning, I found myself disgusted by the piles of garbage that littered the sidewalk. “But what’s the difference,” I suddenly asked myself, “between throwing our trash in the street and throwing it in a landfill?” “Aside from the obvious hygienic benefits,” I mentally replied, “one is just further away from the other.” And as I continued to consider this thought, I began to wonder whether if, by throwing our garbage into landfills, we weren’t throwing it onto the streets of our future generations.

My curiosity led me to research modern waste disposal, and, as you would expect, what I discovered was somewhat disheartening. The waste that you and I generate in our daily lives is commonly known as Municipal Solid Waste, or MSW, which, according to the Center for Sustainable Systems, consists of “common household waste, as well as office and retail wastes, but excludes industrial, hazardous, and construction wastes.” The Center for Sustainable Systems goes on to state that the “[t]otal annual MSW generation in the U.S. has increased more than 67% since 1980, to the current level of 254 million tons per year,” and that, “[i]n 2007, 54% of MSW generated in the U.S. was disposed of in 1,754 landfills.” The EPA echoes this statement, and adds that in the U.S. “33.8% [of MSW] is recovered and recycled or composted, [and] 11.9% is burned at combustion facilities.” While one may like to think that depositing MSW in landfills at least distances the problem from us, the Center for Sustainable Systems deflates this conceit, stating that, “[e]nvironmental implications of landfill disposal include the loss of land area resources, potential leaching of hazardous materials to ground water (proper design limits this possibility), and emissions of methane (CH4, a greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere.” And the technique of incinerating waste is also painted in a grim light; “[t]he incineration of MSW generates a variety of pollutants (such as CO2, heavy metals, dioxins and particulates) that contribute to environmental and human health impacts, such as climate change, smog, acidification, asthma, and heart and nervous system damage.”

Upon learning the above-related facts, it occurred to me that contemporary society was perhaps unknowingly suffering from the effects of a willful ignorance regarding our place on this planet. Apparently we’re now living in the Anthropocene, a period of time in which human activity will leave its own unique layer in the geological record, and yet we persist in thinking that ecosystems only occur in the natural world, and that their cyclical functioning is something that modern humans can only disturb, and not play a part in. Instead of acknowledging ourselves as part of the cyclical nature of life on Earth, we pursue a linear pattern of action, in which resources are used to create products that are, after a time, disposed of, with little regard for what becomes of them after they are thrown out. But, as evidenced by the harmful effects of MSW landfill disposal listed above, no matter how much we allow the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” to inform our attitudes toward garbage, the reality is that we can never really escape our waste, which presently returns to us in the form of spoiled land, dirtied water, and polluted air.

“If I can come to this conclusion after only a few hours of internet research,” I asked myself, “then why haven’t others already arrived at the same conclusion?” As I quickly discovered, others had come to this conclusion, and are currently working to change our throw-away culture by instituting new procedures aimed at reducing or eliminating landfill waste altogether. Chief among these waste-reduction techniques is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which, as described in the 2009 study Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Waste Management Strategies with a Zero Waste Objective, “is a technique for assessing cradle-to-grave environmental impacts associated with production, use, and discard of products and materials in our society.” The above study is subtitled, “Study of the Solid Waste Management System in Metro Vancouver, British Columbia,” and was commissioned by Belkorp Environmental Services Inc. to explore various methods of reducing the waste generated by Vancouver, a city of over two million inhabitants, to zero. The study found that it was possible to increase the current diversion rate of landfill waste from 53% to 83% by 2029, and that the diverted waste would best be disposed of by recycling and composting it, as the study found that other methods, like waste-to-energy, a process in which MSW is burned to generate electricity, created harmful emissions that damaged both the local ecosystems and human health.

Life Cycle Assessments provide a tremendously advantageous perspective on waste management strategies. By studying the life cycle of materials that will compose a new product, we can get a sense of the eventual garbage that will be generated by the product, and can then prepare ourselves to deal with the resultant trash. LCA includes a hierarchy of methods for waste disposal, moving from most to least preferred. Beginning with prevention, the hierarchy travels from there to minimization, reuse, recycling, and energy recovery, and ends with disposal, which is the least preferable method in this paradigm. But, as the European Commission’s brochure Life Cycle Thinking and Assessment stresses, “care needs to be taken to avoid shifting problems from one stage to another,” because, “reducing the environmental impact of a product at the production stage may lead to a greater environmental impact further down the line.” The following example given in the brochure is illustrative of the careful thinking that LCAs entail.

The production of plastic bottles from raw materials requires about 80 MJ/kg (energy per kilogramme). Incineration can generate about 3 MJ/kg of electricity and about 10 MJ of process steam from the recovered energy. However, despite this small energy gain, new bottles would have to be produced, requiring high amounts of energy. In contrast, recycling and selective collection consumes 9 MJ/kg while also avoiding the much higher energy consumption used in the production of new plastic from raw materials.

Nowadays, human beings are major actors in almost every ecosystem on the planet. We have to become aware of the role that we play in both our local and global environments, and a major component of this awareness is recognition of both the cyclical nature of the natural systems that we inhabit, and the peculiar quality that our actions have of returning to us in new forms. With forethought and care, achieved through the implementation of waste management techniques like LCAs, we can begin to decide how these actions will return to us.

Posted by John Michael