It is very likely that you recycle just like my family recycles. We put paper and cardboard in a brown paper bag to be picked up for recycling. In a separate container, we set aside aluminum, plastic, glass, and tin to be also recycled. What about those other miscellaneous trash bags? Do these bags ever get recycled? Most likely not. They typically just go to landfills or city dumps to be stored indefinitely. I humorously and unofficially named our local landfill "Mount Trashmore".
Landfills are a blight to society, because they are a major environment catastrophe. Landfills are a source of continuous contamination to underground water and soil, because their hazardous materials eventually seeps out. They cause perpetual air pollution. They contain serious biohazards and breeding ground for deadly diseases. They have large populations of dangerous wildlife that call landfills their home, and these animals help spread diseases. Furthermore, landfills take up precious space and decrease nearby property values. That are just some of the issues with landfills. So, why are there very few people trying to solve these problems? Let us take a look at what is currently being done with landfills, and what plans are being developed.
Currently, there are only about three popular methods for dealing with landfills besides doing nothing.
First, some cities incinerate their garbage and use the solid waste byproduct (called slag) for road and construction projects. This solution causes dangerous and toxic air pollution, and is typically only used when the cost of storing trash in landfills is greater than incineration even with the added benefit that incinerators produce energy. As a result, this solution only exchanges one type of pollution with another type of pollution.
Another method is actually using landfills as a better renewable source of fuel. For example, several companies (such as Firm Energy Inc.) convert organic waste in landfills into ethanol, natural gas, or methanol that can be used to generate electricity and even biodiesel. It is estimated that landfills produce approximately 13% of all the methane released into the atmosphere. This methane is pollution that could be instead used as fuel and still be more cost effective than traditional energy sources. Thus, this method is a renewable energy source that reduces dependence on fossil fuels, however it only reduces landfills by recycling only organic wastes. Obviously, more solutions need to be found for recycling other types of wastes in landfills.
The third and final method is to bury landfills. That is covering landfills with dirt or concrete, so that the land can be reused, such as for parks and buildings. This method does not address the hazards that landfills will cause for decades to come. This is not a practical long term solution and maybe not a very wise solution either.
Fortunately, there are two new methods for recycling landfills that are gaining interest and momentum.
First, an interesting solution is using landfills as mines because of all the valuable metals buried inside landfills. It is widely believed that landfills have huge quantities of gold, copper, silver, and aluminum that would be cheaper to mine than traditional mines. As a result, landfill mining would save money for the mining companies and would greatly decrease the need and growth of traditional mines that would in turn directly help the environment too. Obviously, this is another piece of the solution for recycling landfills. For more information on the details of landfill mining, you can read these two enlightening articles:
- "There's Gold in Them Thar Smelly Hills" by FastCompany
- "Landfill as gold mine" by Private Sector Development Blog
Second, another new solution is vaporizing trash using a plasma-arc gasification process that has already been proven at work in two facilities Japan and a third larger facility is under construction in the United States of America. This process is much cleaner than incineration, because it uses a closed loop gasification process at higher temperatures than incinerators. As a result, the only emissions that vaporizing produces will be slag and synthetic gas. The slag can and will be safely reused for road and construction projects, and the synthetic gas will be burned as fuel to generate electricity. Burning of this gas should be significantly cleaner than burning fossil fuels or incineration, however environmentalists are quick to point out this has yet to be sufficiently proven. Since all landfill trash can be used in the vaporizing process, this solution can and hopefully will rid the world of each and every landfill. For more information on the details of plasma-arc gasification, please read this article:
In conclusion, there are already several methods of recycling landfills, however they have been proven to be insufficient. Luckily, there are more and better methods over the horizon. Please support your local and national governments by recommending these better solutions for our landfills.
by Phil B.