Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How Well do You Know Your Landfill?

Recently I was stuck on a flight on which I was forced to watch the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t bother. It has a good message, but it just made the flight seem even longer.

The movie is all about how we are ruining the earth, something we already know. But how much do you really know about how we trash the earth? Do you really think about your trash beyond recycling and home composting?

It used to be the garbage was just dumped in a big whole. Today the business of garbage is much more complicated. Fifty-five percent of our garbage is packed into sanitary landfills. The other 45 percent is either recycled or burned.

Landfills must be situated where clay deposits and other land features act as natural buffers between the landfills and the surrounding environment. Burying trash in the ground isn’t acceptable because as it breaks down the garbage leaches toxins into the soil which would eventually end up in drinking water. So instead, landfills are lined with layers of clay or plastic to keep the liquid waste, called leachate, from escaping into the soil. But that’s not all, the leachate must be collected and pumped to the surface where it can be treated. Ground wells are also drilled into and around the landfill to monitor groundwater quality and to detect any contamination. But that’s not the only issue. Each day the landfill must be covered with a layer of earth––called the daily cover–– to reduce odor and control vermin.

I was surprised to learn that the biggest component of landfill is paper—over 40%. I’m not sure what takes up the second most in volume, but disposable diapers take 3rd even though only 5% of the US population uses them.

Environmentalists warn that building new landfills can be challenging since there is potential to expose people who are living or working in close proximity to landfills, to dangerous chemicals. Meanwhile, those on the other side of the debate say it’s all fine because there are plenty of open spaces for landfills left on earth.

This comes from
Some specific landfills will reach maximum capacity in a few years. England has problems with a number of landfills reaching near capacity. A few landfills in the US state of Georgia have approximately ten years left. Some attribute a number of years to specific landfills, like 10 years, 17 years or 20. However, there are no hard figures on when all landfills will reach maximum capacity, but instead, debate about the capacity of landfills and what we should do about it.

This article from the Iowa Source gives instructions on conducting a home trash audit. It’s a good idea. Just becoming more aware of the trash you generate can motivate you to reduce.

If you do nothing else on this Earth Day, try giving some thought to your garbage.
Happy 40th Earth Day!

Illustrations and information thanks to Energy Kid's Page.

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