This article discusses the role of trash landfill mountains in the mass production of methane: one of the most potent greenhouse gases and a major contributor to climate change.
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Solid waste management is becoming a substantial environmental challenge due to the expanding population. Until the 20th century, most garbage was organic and quickly degraded. Today, an average person creates 350 kg of trash annually containing plastic and non-degradable materials.
When this trash is burned, a significant amount of hazardous pollutants and greenhouse gases are discharged into the environment, posing a significant threat to climate change.
How are Trash Mountains Formed?
Trash is disposed of either by landfilling, filling a hole in the ground with the trash or piling it directly on the earth's surface.
Trash disposal sites are designed, located, monitored and operated in compliance with regulations. They are also intended to safeguard the environment from toxins found in the waste stream. They are not permitted to be built near environmentally sensitive locations, and they have on-site environmental monitoring and management systems to detect any signs of groundwater contamination or landfill gas emissions.
However, improper waste management and excessive pilling of trash over a long time result in the formation of trash mountains.
What Dangers Do Trash Mountains Pose?
Impact on climate change
The production of greenhouse gases is likely the most significant environmental issue of landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills rank as the third-largest source of methane emissions because they cause around 5% of methane emissions.
Organic waste, such as food leftovers, is typically covered and compacted in landfills. This removes oxygen and triggers anaerobic breakdown, resulting in methane gas formation.
Nearly 1.7 million cubic meters of methane is produced monthly by a landfill that serves a half-million population. Methane is a major contributor to climate change since it absorbs the sun's heat 80 times more efficiently than CO2.
Methane has contributed around 30% to global warming, and its production is accelerating faster than other greenhouse gases due to increased human activities. This increment has significant implications for global warming and climate change.
Landfills also produce water vapor, nitrogen, and traces of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and organic molecules. These gases can potentially contribute to a rise in global temperatures and climate change if left uncontrolled.
There are many solid waste disposal stations in populated coastal areas. Due to global warming, the sea level is rising and is anticipated to accelerate, exacerbating flooding and erosion.
Therefore, there are concerns that landfills near coastal areas pose an increasing risk to the ecosystem due to the discharge of solid and liquid waste materials.
Impact on environment
According to a WHO report, illegal trash disposal and inefficient waste management in developing countries contribute to soil, water, and air pollution. It also states that people living near dump yards may be at risk of health problems due to exposure to pollutants.
These pollutants can enter the body by inhaling chemicals, contact with polluted soil or water, or ingesting contaminated food.
Open and unsanitary landfills spread illness and contaminate the water supply. In addition, the dispersion of industrial and electronic waste creates a constant threat to ecosystems.
Solutions to Trash Mountains
Diverting organic waste and food scraps from landfills is critical to reducing emissions. The impact of traditional landfills can be minimized by aerating waste heaps and installing greenhouse gas emissions capture system.
Separation of organic waste at its source is one of the easiest solutions. This strategy has proven effective in South Korea, where the government banned the disposal of food scraps in landfills in 2005 and now compels households to place scraps in specific bags and dump them in food waste bins. This increased the country's recycling rate to more than 90% by 2020.
New technologies are employed to segregate mixed waste streams. The Ontario-based company Anaergia Inc. has created a device that uses pressure from a metal piston to extract more than 90% of the organic material. The organic paste is then transferred to an anaerobic digester, where bacteria decompose it, and methane is extracted.
Future of Solid Waste Disposal
Landfills are required for proper solid waste disposal. They keep cities clean, reduce the garbage entering society, and aid in disease prevention. While landfills are a societal need, some techniques can reduce the dependency on landfills and their environmental impact.
Continuous recycling keeps organic materials and plastic out of the environment and gives them new uses. In addition, using biodegradable products can prevent huge amounts of waste from going to landfill.
Landfills aid in the cleanliness of our society, but they also pose severe threats to climate change. Therefore, a national climate action plan should be developed to mitigate the effects of climate change resulting from improper trash disposal.
However, working toward more waste-free solutions will reduce the long-term dependency on landfills and their detrimental effects on the environment, ecology, and human well-being.
References and Further Reading
Clark, A. and Chaudhary, A. (2022). The Trash Mountains of South Asia That Threaten the Climate. [Online]. Bloomberg. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2022-methane-landfills-south-asia-climate-health-hazard/ (Accessed on 12 August 2022).
Vasarhelyi, K. (2022). The Hidden Damage of Landfills. [Online]. The University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: https://www.colorado.edu/ecenter/2021/04/15/hidden-damage-landfills (Accessed on 12 August 2022).
UNISAN. (2022). What is a Landfill? Why are Landfills Bad for the Environment? [Online]. UNISANUK. Available at: https://www.unisanuk.com/ (Accessed on 12 August 2022).
Worland, J. (2015). How Your Trash Is Contributing to Climate Change? [Online]. Time. Available at: https://time.com/4042559/trash-climate-change-landfill/ (Accessed on 12 August 2022).
World Health Organization. (2015). Waste and human health: evidence and needs. In the WHO meeting report. Available at: https://www.who.int/ (Accessed on 12 August 2022).
Anaergia. (2022). Organics Extraction. Recover >90% Putrescible Organics from Mixed Municipal Solid Waste. [Online]. Available at: https://www.anaergia.com/what-we-do/municipal-solid-waste/organics-extraction (Accessed on 12 August 2022).
Galchen, R. (2020). How South Korea Is Composting Its Way to Sustainability? [Online]. The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/09/how-south-korea-is-composting-its-way-to-sustainability (Accessed on 12 August 2022).
EPA. (2022). Basic Information about Landfill Gas. [Online]. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas (Accessed on 12 August 2022).