Landfills: Consequences and Solutions


The word “landfill” conjures up images of huge piles of decaying waste that are slowly polluting the earth. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in the U.S. alone there are over 10,000 old municipal landfills as well as 3,091 active landfills. Landfills, which used to be known as “dumps”, are the oldest known form of waste treatment in the world.

What are Landfills?

Landfills serve the purpose of the disposal of solid waste. Modern landfills are operated, designed, located, and monitored to comply with federal regulations. Due to their nature, landfills cannot be built in areas that are environmentally sensitive and are subject to on-site environmental monitoring systems to constantly keep watch on their impact on the area around them. These monitoring systems check for landfill gases as well as groundwater contamination.

Generally, modern landfills are designed to help protect the surrounding environment from harmful byproducts and contaminants that may be present in the waste. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, all modern landfills must meet minimum standards in terms of operation, design, and closure.

Types of Landfills

All landfills in the United States are subject to regulation under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Subtitle C (hazardous waste) and Subtitle D (solid waste). Some others are subject to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Subtitle C ensures that all hazardous waste is handled in ways that protect both the environment and human health. Subtitle C landfills include:

  • Hazardous waste landfills – These are not used for the disposal of solids and are solely focused on the disposal of hazardous substances

Subtitle D focuses on both local and state governments and how they regulate, plan, and manage non-hazardous solid waste. This category of landfills is made up of:

  • Municipal solid waste landfills – These are specifically for household and other types of non-hazardous waste
  • Industrial waste landfills – These are, as the name suggests, designed for the disposal of industrial and commercial waste
  • Bioreactor landfills – These degrade and quickly transform organic waste
  • Construction and Demolition Debris Landfills – This category of landfill is exclusively for the disposal of construction and demolition waste
  • Coal combustion residual landfills – This category of landfill is for industrial waste relating to coal ash and coal combustion residuals.

Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) landfills come under the Toxic Substances Control Act, and some decontamination processes require EPA approval.

Are Landfills Harmful to the Environment?

There are numerous environmental problems caused directly by the existence of landfills – these can be categorized as hydrological and atmospheric effects. There is also the issue of e-waste leaching dangerous chemicals into the eco-system.

  • Hydrological effects – With large numbers of people discarding chemical and household cleaners in landfills, there is a real toxicity issue that isn’t likely to go away fast. This impacts upon both people and wildlife, and can have a devastating effect.
  • Atmospheric effects – The EPA has stated that the methane produced by rotting organic matter in landfills is damaging the earth’s climate. Mixtures of harmful chemicals in landfills, such as ammonia and bleach, are also producing highly toxic gases which have a detrimental effect on air quality. Add this to the dust and other contaminants found in landfills, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Landfills also have the potential to cause many other significant environmental issues such as fires, due to escaping gases and accumulated waste. These will destroy delicate local habitats, and can pollute the air. There is also the issue of decomposition as inorganic materials such as Styrofoam can take as many as one million years to decompose.

E Waste

This is a huge contributor to issues with water quality in the vicinity of landfills, and deserves a category of its own. As these chemicals accumulate, rains can then potentially lead them to municipal water supplies.

We live in a society which has an increasing reliance on electronic appliances and gadgets. No sooner is one model released then another improved one takes its place. E-waste is therefore becoming a toxic ticking time bomb for our planet. In fact, in Australia alone, electronic waste is growing at three times the rate of other waste streams.

Electronic waste, when disposed of in landfill sites, leaches out dangerous substances such as mercury, cadmium, and lead into the surrounding eco-system. When this reaches humans it can cause cancers, tumors, and even mental health issues. For this reason, recycling of electronics is key. This not only reduces the level of toxins in the environment, but it also means less raw materials are mined from the earth each year.

Alternatives to the Landfill (Zero Landfill Concept)

Zero waste is a concept that encourages that all products should be reused. Followers of this philosophy do not send any trash to incinerators or to landfills. The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) definition of the philosophy is:

“Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.”

Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste eliminates discharges to land, water, or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health. Zero waste is a viable and economical alternative to current traditional waste systems, and is recognized as an environmentally sound way to reduce pollution.

Reducing Your Contributions to Landfills

Reducing personal contributions to landfills may seem like a difficult task, however there are many workable options.

  • Aim to compost and recycle as much as possible
  • Donate unwanted goods to charity or give them away
  • Buy recyclable products where possible
  • Never buy more than you need

With the findings of a recent Yale-led study discovering that American citizens discard twice as much trash as estimates by the federal government had predicted, now is the time for real and lasting change. Recycling and reducing contributions to landfills is something everyone needs to focus on for the health and well-being of the planet.

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