Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann and Stephen Gerritson are board members at the Institute for Energy and Resource Management, a nonprofit organization with decades of international expertise that is dedicated to scientific research and education in the field of waste management.
When it comes to climate change, it seems that the tide is finally turning among policymakers in the United States. President Biden’s infrastructure proposals include funding for several major greenhouse gas emissions reduction programs. The Pentagon has released a report calling global warming a threat to national security. There is even a Republican delegation to COP26 in Glasgow.
Not to be dramatic, but this awakening comes not a moment too soon.
Because greenhouse gases can stay in the atmosphere for decades we are fast approaching the “tipping point,” after which no efforts will be able to prevent unacceptable levels of warming and the rate of severe weather events, drought, rising sea levels and coastal erosion will continue to worsen. Methane, much more damaging than carbon dioxide (CO2) in the short term, is an immediate target.
The Biden administration’s major effort to reduce methane emissions is focused on the oil and gas industry, specifically leaks in pipelines and other installations. While methane from landfills — the third-largest source of methane identified by the administration — will be considered, landfills have not yet received the urgent attention they require.
The U.S. EPA has revived Obama-era rules that would regulate emissions from landfills more strictly, potentially resulting in a 7% emissions reduction, but we feel that there is a better and simpler solution: stop landfilling municipal solid waste (MSW) altogether.
This would have many environmental benefits beyond methane reductions, such as reduced soil and water contamination and the avoidance of toxics in windblown nanoparticles. The principal benefits, however, would be the elimination of methane emissions from what is thrown away and further avoidance of emissions from the adoption of alternatives.
According to the EPA, there are around 1,300 active MSW landfills and many thousands more inactive or closed sites in the United States that emitted an estimated 114 million tons of methane in 2019. As organic waste decomposes in those landfills it produces methane, which then leaks into the atmosphere. Currently, only large landfills are required to have a methane collection system in place. As of this year, fewer than 600 such systems are operating.
Moreover, studies have shown that these collection systems cannot collect all of the methane generated. For example, a study conducted by NASA from 2016 to 2018 in California — based on actual measurement of methane emissions — found that landfills overall accounted for 41% of the total amount of methane emitted by all sources.
The EPA has stated it believes estimates of methane emissions from landfills may be twice as high as models indicate. While the landfill industry might disagree, numerous field studies have found that methane emissions are actually much higher than estimated. A 2016 study by Germany's Institute for Energy and Environmental Research identified that landfill operators’ claims of methane recovery left out substantial amounts of emissions.
The European model
A number of countries in Europe have taken steps to phase out most landfilling, with very positive results.
Germany, for example, has eliminated the landfilling of MSW, and has reduced methane and other emissions by about 64% over the past 15 years. According to the German Environment Agency, the vast majority of remaining emissions now come from waste buried before bans on disposing biodegradable material took effect in 2005. Denmark’s experience was similar, resulting in close to a 75% reduction in methane emissions from landfilling over a 10-year period. As a result, 16 countries in the European Union, as well as Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, have adopted a ban on landfilling organic wastes as of 2021.
But to be successful, an alternative method of disposal must be offered. After all, according to the U.S. EPA we still generate about 1,788 pounds of waste per person per on an annual basis. Supposedly 574 pounds are recycled, and 211 pounds go to waste-to-energy plants, leaving at least 1,003 pounds (or about half a ton per person) to be disposed of each year, almost all of it in landfills.
In Europe, that alternative is an integrated waste management system based on the international waste hierarchy: prevention, reuse, recycling, recovery and disposal. Prevention is the most favored step, disposal the least.
Prevention involves some changes in the way things are made, such as different materials, less packaging, longer lifespans and so on. For example, some jurisdictions in the U.S. are requiring that disposable utensils and take-out food packaging be made from more sustainable materials, rather than plastic. It also means new programs, such as extended producer responsibility (EPR), that require manufacturers to take back certain products or subsidize management costs once the consumer has finished with them.
While some U.S. states have begun to move on packaging EPR plans, the majority of existing programs for materials cover smaller categories such as paint and carpeting. Expanding the use of such programs, and including the true cost of landfilling in calculations, would be a step toward achieving a circular economy.
Reuse and recycling are apparent in meaning, but need to be further expanded while improving collection techniques and eliminating contamination. Much of what is recycled in the U.S., for example, could actually end up in a landfill (with a small percentage going to waste-to-energy facilities). With proper collection and processing systems, and a ban on landfilling MSW, a much larger percentage of what is thrown away could actually be recycled.
Current recycling rates in the U.S. are stuck in the 30% to 35% range. In Germany, the figure is closer to 65%. Prevention, reuse and recycling allow European nations to avoid millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions by limiting or reducing the manufacturing of certain products from raw materials, chiefly plastics.
Recovery involves recapturing the basic materials used to manufacture the product being disposed of, including the energy used to make it. In the U.S., there are now about 70 waste-to-energy facilities in operation, although they are a difficult "sell" due to low energy costs and high capital expenses. These facilities offer benefits such as material recovery and the safe destruction of toxic materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. State-of-the-art technology keeps their emissions much cleaner than stringent EPA requirements.
They also provide baseload power to communities, avoiding the burning of fossil fuels. While landfill gas recovery systems may contribute somewhat to baseload power, they are inefficient and no substitute for the elimination of methane from landfilling MSW.
Disposal is the least desirable alternative, and consequently disposal in landfills in Europe is only permitted for waste that has been processed to reduce the organic content to a degree that renders it practically non-reactive.
In European countries that have ceased landfilling of untreated MSW, this accounts for less than 20% of total waste generated and has stopped the generation of new methane emissions. The bottom ash is not mixed with the fly ash and replaces concrete and gravel for roads, ports, airports and other facilities, further reducing CO2. Most of the fly ash is added to concrete that is used to stabilize salt mines.
Eliminating the practice of landfilling organic waste in the U.S. will not be easy, for several reasons.
People who live in the United States are comfortable with the current system, as they are often unaware of the impacts of landfilling. We put our trash and recycling on the curb, and it gets picked up and taken away. While some of us are diligent about recycling, others are less so.
Change, especially change that requires us to do more or spend more (while ignoring the true cost of consuming), is never simple. Recycling of organic waste would in principle be nothing new to the U.S. Composting is already in use, and anaerobic digestion and combustion are used for energy recovery. However, a lot will have to be improved in the ways the organic waste is collected (curbside separation) and processed to achieve a high degree of clean compost and recover more clean, renewable energy.
A second problem is the legal nature of landfill regulation. The EPA sets standards for emissions and for water quality, but landfill permitting and operations are generally the purview of state or local governments that tend to be much more sensitive to changes in fees or expenses, often driven by a misperception of cost.
A third problem is the economics of the landfill industry. Over the past three or four decades, landfills have gone from mostly government-owned sites to about two-thirds privately owned. Waste management companies are no longer just local contractors and the largest landfill operators are now national publicly traded companies. Substantial sums have been spent at the federal and state level by the waste management industry to influence the development and implementation of regulations. It is clear that waste companies have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and are willing to spend to do so.
So what can the U.S. learn from Europe? With an advanced integrated waste management system — following the internationally recognized waste management hierarchy — methane emissions from landfills can be reduced to almost nothing by collecting and treating organic wastes separately from other wastes.
However, this is only one part of the solution. About the same amount of CO2 emissions can be avoided by properly recycling the other waste materials that constitute the remainder of MSW today. By recovering secondary materials, the manufacturing of new materials can be reduced accordingly thereby avoiding greenhouse gas emissions to a very high degree.
As more and more people come to realize the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for real and significant action, the U.S. must follow suit. As European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said before the opening of the COP26 conference in Glasgow, now comes the "moment of truth" that will affect the "survival of mankind."
Contributed pieces do not reflect an editorial position by Waste Dive.
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