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Why Don’t Landfills Solve the Waste Problem?

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

For most Western countries, once our trash disappears into the bin, its “out of sight, out of mind,” with faith that our waste management systems will take care of the rest. But the journey of our garbage often results in a landfill, an area of land with a man-made structure built into the earth or on top of it. Landfills take many years to reach full capacity before it is covered with clay, soil, and vegetation to keep waste isolated from rain, air, and groundwater.

However, the lack of oxygen results in bacterial reactions and an incrementally slow breakdown of rubbish. Here’s why landfills simply don’t solve our waste problem.

Overconsumption Has Lasting Effects

Since the 1960's, the national recycling rate has never been higher than 35%

American landfills are being filled by the 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) that the country produces each year. Nearly half of our trash in 2018 went to landfills around the country; the rest was exported to other countries. Since the 1960’s, the national recycling rate has never been higher than 35%, so what we throw away matters. Many everyday items such as dental floss, teflon frying pans, and plastic food packaging are made of materials known as “forever chemicals” (PFAs) that will never ever break down.

Landfills Leach Toxins into the Water

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, all landfills will eventually leak. When it rains atop an uncovered landfill, water filters through broken down waste and creates a highly toxic liquid known as leachate, which pollutes land and water systems. Plastics and electronic waste such as televisions and computers tend to leach the most toxic chemicals that create leachate, filled with heavy metals, solvents, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium. PFAs are highly concentrated in leachates, which affect the drinking water of 200 million Americans every day.

Landfills Emit Methane that Pollute the Air

When organic material like green waste and food scraps ends up in a landfill, it breaks down in an anaerobic process and releases methane, a highly flammable greenhouse gas 86% more powerful than carbon dioxide, and one of the worst culprits of climate change.

The EPA found that within the United States, landfills are the third-largest source of human-caused methane emissions. Although many landfills have pipes that collect the methane to burn for energy, the emissions from landfills can affect nearby communities with odors, respiratory issues, and even birth defects. If a fire occurs in the landfill, firefighters use a chemical fire-retardant foam to put it out, further adding to the toxic footprint of the landfill.

Looking Towards Zero Waste As a Solution

Reduced consumption is the only solution to the volume and toxicity of our waste. Zero waste is a goal that aims to eliminate our garbage, like using organic matter to feed animals and soil, and reusing nonorganic products again and again. It analyzes the front end (production and design) and the back end (reuse and reprocessing) of material flow to incentivize products and systems that thrive within a circular economy.

Moving towards zero waste also creates opportunities for environmental justice for the low-income communities of color who have historically been most affected by toxic waste, as found in a study by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. These communities will have access to clean air and water with zero waste management.

Whether we aim to recycle on an individual level, support companies with reusable packaging, or increase pressure on governments to pass stronger regulations against chemical leaching, it’s easy to work towards a zero waste lifestyle.

Here at Topanga, we implement reusable to-go packaging within the restaurant industry, contact us today to get started!

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