MSW Management

What You Probably Didn’t Know About the Benefits of Landfills

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What are landfills?

The “garbage dump” is no more. Today’s modern MSW landfills are also called “Subtitle D” landfills because they are regulated based on the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Subtitle D requirements, are well-engineered facilities operating under strict federal and state regulations to ensure protection of human health and the environment.

A landfill is a highly engineered facility with multiple layers of protection that isolates wastes from the environment. They bear little resemblance to the garbage dumps your grandfathers’ generation. Landfills are creating green solutions from ordinary waste. They are also creating unexpected economic benefits for the communities they serve.

Prior to the modern day landfill, waste materials were dumped, and sometimes burned, in the worst possible locations with very little engineering controls. Subsequently, many of these dumps required significant environmental cleanups.

Today’s modern landfill is designed to every aspect of the environment it touches including, ground water, storm water, noise, visual impacts, traffic and air. Each of these environmental issues have belt and suspenders type systems to monitor and manage potential impacts.

What kinds of waste do landfills handle?

Landfills can safely handle non-hazardous municipal solid waste, constriction and demolition waste, land clearing debris, some industrial wastes, coal ash, sewage sludge, treated medical wastes, solidified liquid wastes and tenorm (Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material—fracking waste) from fracking.

How much waste goes to landfills and why is that waste not recycled?

Landfills have strict requirements for siting, construction, operations and post closure care.

How are landfills regulated to address safety and environmental concerns?

Modern landfills feature high-tech, carefully monitored containment systems that control water and air emissions and minimize other nuisances. Dedicated landfill employees monitor these facilities closely, providing quality control.

Modern landfills are designed, sited, engineered, operated, regulated, tested and monitored in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. Federal regulations restrict siting landfills in floodplains, wetlands or along fault lines.

Layers of special liners and collection systems also protect the groundwater by collecting and managing the leachate, liquid from the waste.

How are air emissions regulated on landfills?

NSPS (new source performance standards) govern air emissions from landfills. Sources that fall under these rules must collect and control landfill gas. The rule is relatively prescriptive in its implementation. Flaring is considered BACT (best available control technology) so it is usually utilized as the control mechanism unless beneficial use is employed. At which point, the flare is a backup control device.

What is landfill gas?

Landfill gas is the product of the anaerobic decomposition of organic materials in a landfill and mostly consist of biogenic carbon dioxide and methane. Methane is the energy component of landfill gas and can be used for a variety of beneficial uses. When we capture methane gas and turn it into energy, it can power lights, nearby homes and compressed natural gas vehicles including many of the very vehicles that pick up waste and recycling in neighborhoods across the nation.

Prominent manufacturing companies have also used this renewable energy. In South Carolina, a 10-mile pipeline was built that delivers gas from a landfill to a BMW production plant where the gas is used in manufacturing.

As of March 2016, existing recovery projects produced annual amounts of energy equivalent to 2,099 MW of electricity. EPA estimates these products provided annual energy benefits of powering over 1,200,000 homes and reduced emissions similar to sequestering carbon in over 83 million acres of forest.

Waste-based renewable energy

Waste can serve as a source of renewable energy. One type of waste-based energy is landfill gas to energy.

Trash, buried beneath a layer of soil in a landfill, eventually decomposes and produces gas. We safely collect these gases to convert them into valuable energy. Landfill operators apply a vacuum to collection wells located throughout a landfill to collect the landfill gas. The landfill gas is then piped to a compression and filtering unit usually located next to the landfill. Technicians make sure that the gas is filtered properly before it is sent to its end user which could be a manufacturing plant, converted to electricity and sent to the power grid, or a number of other commercial customers including fuel for waste and recycling collection vehicles. More recently the customer does not necessarily have to have access to a pipeline, more and more the gas is being trucked in its gaseous or liquid states to customers with heat loads that would ordinarily be supplied by less environmentally friendly fuels. This is known as a virtual pipeline.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as of March 2016-, 648 landfills in the U.S. have landfill methane to energy programs. These exist in all states except Hawaii and Wyoming. EPA has identified approximately 400 additional landfills as good candidates for landfill methane to energy programs.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, waste-based energy, of which landfill is part, is the source of over 5% of America’s renewable energy. Methane captured from landfills is a carbon neutral, green, renewable energy that can fuel vehicles or help power the electricity grid, easing our dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil.

In 2014, these landfill energy projects delivered enough energy to heat or power around 1.2 million homes and businesses.

What kind of energy can landfill gas produce?

Landfill gas can be converted into electricity. It can also be directly used to offset the use of another fuel such as natural gas, coal or fuel oil, and it can be turned into an alternative fuel for transportation and other uses and it can be used in a cogeneration project to generate both electricity and thermal power.

Electricity generation is the most common energy recovery use, with 2/3 of existing projects producing this form of renewable energy. One third of the projects directly use landfill gas in boilers, dryers, kilns, etc. Industries such as auto manufacturing, chemical production, food processing, pharmaceuticals, cement and brick manufacturing, wastewater treatment, consumer electronics and products, paper and steel production, and prisons and hospitals, use energy from landfill gas. The use of landfill gas as a transportation fuel is growing and provides a renewable option for vehicles that operate on natural gas including many trucks in waste industry fleets that operate on CNG, a growing practice in the industry. The waste and recycling industry is a leader in using these clean burning vehicles in our fleet.

Landfill gas going to both Mars and to space!

In May 2008, the Mars Snackfood US factory in Waco, TX—which makes 85 percent of the Snickers candy bars produced in North America—started fueling its boilers with methane from the Waco Regional Landfill. The switch was projected to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in gas costs a year while also lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

NASA is using landfill gas to fuel space exploration. NASA is saving more than $3.5 million over the next decade by heating 31 buildings at its Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, with energy from landfill gas.

In another example, in Vermont, Casella Waste powers a maple syrup factory using energy produced from one of its landfills. Also, Waste Management fuels over a million homes through landfill gas and WastePro recently opened CNG filling stations.

Landfills are being repurposed for pollination:

This past fall, researchers from the University of Maine Orono began a pollinator habitat study at our Pine Tree Landfill in Hampden, ME. Over the next three years, UMaine researchers will plant groupings of carefully selected plant species to enhance the landfill’s performance as a pollinator habitat, and then carefully monitor the activity of the bees. The objectives are to provide food for native and honey bees, and ultimately develop practical guidelines that allow open spaces such as landfills to become repurposed to provide much needed support to pollinators, which have recently been in decline. Pine Tree Landfill closed in 2009, but continues to produce gas for electricity generation, and now may take on another post-retirement role as an oasis for Maine’s threatened pollinators.

What are the additional benefits of landfill gas as a renewable energy?

Landfill gas is generated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its generation is not dependent on environmental factors such as the amount of sunlight or wind. Solar passed renewables from waste biomass (which includes more than LFG) offer an on-line reliability of more than 90%.

What other regenerative benefits do landfills offer?

In recent years, landfill operators have begun generating energy beyond gas from landfills by placing solar panels and windmills on these sites. Solar and wind power from landfills can be fed into local electric grids and used to power local homes and businesses. One landfill in Maine has even reported success in generating geo-thermal energy from their site. As technology develops, so will the many benefits that can be derived and extracted from American landfills.

How do landfills control odors emanating from their sites?

The advancement of technology and landfills being so highly engineered, most facilities have been able to control odors emanating from their sites.

How do landfills control vectors and birds?

Vectors are controlled by daily cover (which is helpful in managing odors as well). Daily cover also serves to control wind-blown litter. And, last, it acts as a fire break so that in the event of a fire, it will not continue to propagate. It is an all-purpose control measure. Bird control efforts are similarly in place on landfill sites.

Is the U.S. running out of landfill capacity?

Simply put, no – the amount of landfill capacity in the U.S. has remained steady for decades. There is enough landfill capacity to meet the needs of the American public for the decades to come.

Some have the misconception that we are running out of space because the number of landfills has closed over several decades. In fact with new technology and strict requirements, only highly engineered facilities meeting those requirements are operating today those facilities are more efficient and are engineered to accept more waste than older facilities.

Today, modern landfills are engineered, well-designed facilities that protect human health and the environment. Landfills are such technological marvels that there are significantly less landfills than there were a generation ago.

What role can a landfill play in emergency situations?

Landfills are used to safely handle waste that is generated during a number of different natural disasters such as debris and other waste from Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina as well as from other emergencies like bird flu, Landfills train their workers to safely manage materials from these events and dispose of them in ways that do not compromised environmental or public health.

What happens once a landfill is closed?

Once the landfill has reached its permitted capacity, the landfill is closed and engineered to prevent water infiltration by installing a cap made of clay or a synthetic material. A drainage layer, a protective soil cover and topsoil are then added to support vegetation growth.

Today, landfills are designed from the start to ensure protection of the environment and public health, and to provide continued environmental benefits even after they are closed. After closure, landfills can be used for open space or agricultural purposes, recreational purposes, parking, and industrial, residential and commercial development.

Engineers and landscape designers transform these sites into parks, golf courses, wildlife refuges and other spaces that can be enjoyed by the entire community.

A few prominent examples of sites that are built on closed landfills include the Palomar Airport in California, and Mile High Stadium, the former home of the Colorado Rockies and Denver Broncos, which is now a parking lot for the city’s new stadium.

What are the economic benefits of landfills?

In many communities where landfills are based they are the largest tax payers, contributing significantly to local revenue and development. Many landfill owners also implement programs that support their local communities. For example, Casella Waste Systems provides thousands of dollars in scholarships every year for youth in communities where their sites are based and also provide educational programming and tours at no cost to student and civic groups.

What other benefits do landfills provide?

Landfill sometimes (but not always) provide: recycling drop-off, C&D recycling, tire disposal (usually to be removed offsite), white goods (appliance) recycling, composting, propane tank management, electronic goods recycling, used oil management, HHW management, free mulch (from composting). Less common yields include tours, easements and conservation areas, roll-off storage, weather station online access, recreation activities (annual “lunch at the dump”, trails, golf on closed facilities etc.)

Landfills also provide a economic benefits in terms of taxes paid, host community fees and jobs. Each landfill (depending on size) typically contributes millions of dollars in annual economic benefit to the community it serves and creates dozens if not hundreds of jobs. And, if the private sector didn’t provide this benefit and manage these sites, it would be up to the municipalities to replace and for the taxpayers to bear. Until everything in America is recyclable landfills still play a vital role as a viable disposal option. We need them as a significant component of our economy.

Managing municipal solid waste is more than landfilling: publicity, education, engineering, long-term planning, and landfill gas waste-to-energy are specialties needed in today’s complex environment. We’ve created a handy infographic featuring 6 tips to improve landfill management and achieve excellence in operations.  6 Tips for Excellence in Landfill Operations. Download it now!

Where can the public find more information?

The public should visit to find out more about these highly engineered, safe and regenerative facilities. MSW_bug_web

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