Environmental Problems: Landfills

Environmental Problems: Landfills

Landfills have led to some of the most heated, acrimonious battles over pollution in the public commons that have ever been seen. While there are a number of reasons for the vehement arguments that often surround landfills, one of the largest is the juxtaposition of both the understood need for landfills and the lack of will to live near one. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average person dumps almost 4.5 pounds of waste into landfills every single day. With the population skyrocketing across the country, these landfills will only become more of a public issue as time goes on. Despite the arguments over landfills in general, there are no arguments over the assertion that there are many things that contribute to the environmental problem of landfills.

Environmental Problems Caused by Landfills

The environmental problems caused by landfills are numerous. While there are many problems with landfills, the negative effects are most commonly placed into two distinct categories: atmospheric effects and hydrological effects. While these effects are both of equal importance, the specific factors that drive them are important to understand on an individual basis.

Atmospheric Effects

According to the EPA, the methane produced by the rotting organic matter in unmanaged landfills is 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat from the sun. Not only does methane get produced by the various forms of rotting organic matter that find their way into landfills, but household cleaning chemicals often make their way here as well. The mixture of chemicals like bleach and ammonia in landfills can produce toxic gases that can signfiicantly impact the quality of air in the vicinity of the landfill.

Aside from the various types of gases that can be created by these landfills, dust and other forms of non-chemical contaminants can make their way into the atmosphere. This contributes further to the air quality issue that plagues modern landfills.

Hydrological Effects

Landfills also create a toxic soup of industrial and home-cleaning chemicals. People throw away everything from industrial solvents to household cleaners in landfills, and these chemicals accumulate and mix over time. A more immediate concern is for the welfare of the wildlife that comes into contact with these chemicals, and it is not uncommon for animals to suffer inconceivably painful deaths resulting from chemical contamination.

Aside from chemicals, electronic waste is also a large contributor to water quality issues near landfills. Consumer electronics contain everything from lead to cadmium; the EPA reportsthat in 2009, of the 2.37 million short tons of electronic waste, around 25 percent or less were recycled. These chemicals accumulate and are washed away periodically by rain, potentially dragging them toward municipal water supplies.

Additional Landfill Environmental Problems

Emissions are not the only types of problems associated with landfills. A closer look can show why so many much needed changes are so difficult to come by.

  • Landfill Fires: Landfill gases, and the shear amount of landfill waste, can easily ignite a fire. Fires can be difficult to put out and contribute to the pollution of the air and water. They can also potentially destroy habitats nearby if not controlled soon enough. The most flammable gas that is most commonly produced by landfills is methane, which is highly combustable. Firefighters will often use a fire-retardent foam to fight fires in landfills due to the presence of chemicals that would not be subdued by water, further adding to the chemical load of these landfills.
  • Decomposition: Sometimes, landfills are covered with earth, seeded with grass, andtransformed into recreational areas. The management of gasses coming out of these sites is a constant issue, and creates an ongoing cost despite the new facade of the landfill. Products that are natural, such as wasted fruits and vegetables, will decompose within weeks while No MOre Trash! reports that items like Styrofoam can take over a million years to decompose.

A Creative Solution

A number of landfills have been in use since long before the popularity of recycling. These landfills contain a wealth of mineral resources that are simply sitting there rotting away, and this has created a unique opportunity for “green” American mining. Miners have bought the rights to a number of different landfill facilities to conduct mining operations. With all of the precious metals and other minerals that are in electronic waste, more and more companies are looking at landfills as gold mines. This extra activity comes with larger atmospheric pollution via dust; however this is generally offset by the amount of pollution that is not being generated by mining new materials and shipping them around the world.

You Can Make a Difference

While you may not be able to completely eliminate the garbage coming out of your household, there are definitely steps that anyone can take to at least mitigate the amount of trash they produce. The EPA has a number of very simple tips that you can integrate into your life if you are interested in lessening your impact. Not all positive environmental steps need to be huge ones. Many small steps can often amount to a large move forward, and there are certainly a few things that everyone can change to become less wasteful.

Author: Jared Skye BA Environmental Science

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