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We Need To Stop Landfills From Spewing Methane, Especially When They Spontaneously Combust

Methane is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon, and there’s lots of it trapped in our garbage. And our garbage has a nasty habit of igniting.

We Need To Stop Landfills From Spewing Methane, Especially When They Spontaneously Combust
[Photos: WitthayaP via Shutterstock]

Your excessive and wholly unnecessary lifestyle choices ultimately lead here: to the landfill. America throws away an extraordinary amount of garbage: 4.3 pounds per person per day, or two-and-a-half the amount of 50 years ago, according to a Duke University analysis.

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And it’s possible that is an under-estimation. We’re actually not sure how much trash we send to landfills every year. Duke says 220 million metric tons. The Environmental Protection Agency: 122 million tons. And a new estimate, that 262 million tons was taken away in 2012.

The paper, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, has a higher number because it’s based on a different type of data. The researchers, from Yale and the University of Florida, estimate waste from methane gas levels reported to the EPA’s greenhouse gas reporting program. In effect, the paper says the EPA is wrong about waste because its methane figures show it.

From a climate perspective, landfills aren’t coal-fired power plants, but their impact isn’t insignificant. Because methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, landfills are responsible for 18% of all domestic GHG emissions. Landfills therefore should be targeted, and especially as they’re forecast to grow in size. Low and middle-income countries are expected to dispose of 158% to 185 % more waste by 2025 compared to 2010 levels.

“The collective, consistent global trend towards steady or perhaps increasing rates of landfilling clearly demonstrates that the waste sector warrants additional scrutiny to identify GHG emission reduction opportunities at landfills,” the paper says.

That improves the case for tapping gas before it reaches the atmosphere. But that isn’t as easy as it sounds. 869 landfills in the U.S. had gas collection systems in 2010 and almost half (46%) saw at least one fire in the proceeding six years. “Fires and heat-generating reactions are often initiated or exacerbated through the introduction of air into the waste mass, creating exothermic decomposition reactions and potentially explosive conditions,” the paper says.

If the U.S. has so many fires, it’s safe to assume less advanced countries are as susceptible or more so. The paper calls for “innovative implementation of new technologies to enable the greatest level of methane reductions from landfills.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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