What Is a Landfill? The Environmental Costs of Waste (2022)

What is a landfill - Image of a dump site with a huge pile of trash and a tractor on top

It’s essential for countries worldwide to maintain a secure, contained area to dispose of waste produced by citizens and businesses.

Landfills play a critical role in keeping towns clean and maintaining public health. However, relying on landfills for waste management extracts enormous environmental costs.

The average person understands that most of their waste ends up in a landfill. But what is a landfill, and how do they work? Do they make an impact on the environment?

Below, we’ll explain what landfills are, how they operate, and some environmental concerns over landfills.

What is a Landfill? Overview of the Basics

First, it’s important to define what a landfill is and is not. Modern-day landfills are well-engineered and well-managed facilities that are disposal sites for solid waste. These sites are placed in designated areas and are actively monitored to comply with federal regulations. 

One goal of using landfill sites is to prevent potential contaminants from entering the environment. On-site environmental modeling systems do exist to mitigate environmental costs, such as checking for groundwater contamination and landfill gas.

Here are several types of landfills:

  • Municipal solid waste (MSWLF): These landfills receive household waste and other types of non-hazardous trash.
  • Industrial waste: These landfills collect industrial and commercial waste, a significant percentage of solid waste.
  • Hazardous waste: These landfills contain hazardous waste and do not store any solid waste.
  • Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB): These landfills contain industrial products and chemicals.

How Many Landfills Are in the World?

Landfills are a long-standing waste management technique, but it’s important to note that many regions around the world lack access to reliable waste collection and management services.

Many low-income countries rely on open dumpsites rather than regulated, systematic landfills, which extracts an even higher cost for the poorer communities living in close proximity to these sources of health risks and environmental pollutants.

Currently, 37% of global waste is collected in a landfill, and 31% is collected in open dumping. Environmentally safe waste management is an expensive endeavor, making it harder for lower-income countries to establish this infrastructure.

What is a landfill - image of a huge landfill site extending as far as the eye can see

Even so, high-income countries disproportionately generate waste. According to the World Bank, 16% of the world’s population in richer countries generates 34% of global waste.

The top five largest landfills in the world range from 600 to 2,200 acres in size, with the Apex Regional Landfill in Las Vegas, Nevada, holding 50 million tons of waste in its expansive square footage. Runner ups include landfills in Mexico City, Shanghai, Rome and Los Angeles.

Next, we’ll discuss how landfills operate and handle waste storage:

How Do Landfills Operate?

Throughout the world, waste collection and disposal is largely up to local or regional agencies. In most towns and cities, waste management employees will bring large amounts of non-recyclable waste in trucks and dispose of it in the landfill. In some locations, you can drop your trash off at stations that dispose of it in the proper landfill.

Because landfill techniques have evolved, sanitary landfills are now highly organized in higher-income countries with the capacity to invest in better infrastructure.

In environmentally-optimized locations, waste is strategically sorted to leave the smallest possible environmental impact. If a landfill reaches full capacity, it is capped so no more waste can be stored.

Take a look at this video by mpmyersphd to see how a landfill works in more detail:

Once a landfill is capped, at least two feet of soil is put on top of it to limit debris migration and prevent contaminants from spreading into the nearby environment. The life cycle of a landfill can range from 30 to 50 years and many countries will monitor the landfill for decades after closure.

How Do Landfills Impact the Environment?

Firstly, it’s important to note that the number of landfill sites in the U.S. has dropped dramatically in the past decades.

There were more than 6,000 landfills in the country in 1990, and in 2018, Statista reports that the number dropped to only 1,269. While this is promising, however, waste management continues to be a pressing environmental issue worldwide.

The primary concern with landfills regarding the environment is that they’re the largest sources of methane. Methane is a gas found in small quantities in the atmosphere. However, it’s a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG) that is even more potent than carbon dioxide and absorbs significant amounts of heat.

Methane is a significant contributor to global warming and climate change. The United Nations (UN) released a report in 2021 saying urgent steps need to be taken to reduce methane emissions. Even just a 45% reduction in methane emissions could prevent:

  • 260,000 premature deaths
  •  775,000 asthma-related hospital visits
  • 73 billion hours of lost labor
  • 25 million tonnes of annual crop losses

Landfills are also connected to larger issues with how hazardous and difficult waste is managed worldwide. Many developing countries become the recipients of global waste as richer counterparts find cheap solutions to waste management.

However, these regions often lack the tools and resources to safely and properly dispose of end-of-life electronics or hazardous materials. 

Finding more sustainable solutions to waste management is needed to keep the environment from deteriorating. For example, green construction works to reduce the amount of waste produced.

In industrial and construction industries, actions like building green spaces, using eco-friendly equipment, and relying on non-toxic building materials are some ways that can improve waste management.

On a global scale, there is more pressure on wide scale action to reduce waste and mitigate climate change. Many countries have signed the Paris Agreement to work towards net-zero carbon emissions, with the ultimate goal of slowing down climate change and its negative effects.

How Consumers Can Reduce Landfill Waste: Actionable Solutions

It’s no secret that modern households have a waste problem. The U.S. average person produces around 4.5 pounds of waste per day (or 2.04 kg), and the worst part is that much of that is made up of potentially recyclable materials.

In comparison to other countries, the U.S. has a considerably high amount of waste. For example, in Europe, the average amount of waste generated by one person annually is only 487 kg, or 1,073 pounds.

What is a landfill? Image of a large pile of black trash bags on the curb, waiting to be collected to go to landfill

You may be curious how you, as a consumer, can prevent waste from entering landfills unnecessarily. Living a low-waste or even a zero-waste lifestyle can be achievable with a few lifestyle changes — and collectively, these changes can start to shift culture away from a mass consumption and mass waste mindset.

Below are some actions you can take to reduce the waste you produce:

  • Donate old clothes at your local thrift stores, such as Plato’s Closet or Goodwill.
  • Make good use of food waste by composting. Make it a fun family activity!
  • Reuse old shopping bags and containers. Try to limit how often you order takeout, as it requires a lot of plastic packaging that may end up in a landfill.
  • Buy a reusable water bottle and ditch plastic bottles. Plastic water bottles end up in landfills and oceans and harm the environment or marine life.
  • Learn your town’s recycling procedures and recycle as often as possible.
  • Purchase items that are made of or with recycled materials.
  • Urge your friends and family to take these actions to prevent high amounts of landfill waste.

Methane from landfills has a devastating impact on the environment, so everyone must pitch in and do what they can to reduce their carbon footprint

Environmentalists may easily get dismayed at the scale of the issue, but as with any systematic problem, chipping away at our individual contributions and spreading the word to convince others can build into meaningful, widespread change.

Understanding the Environmental Costs of Landfills

More work needs to be done to make landfills more sustainable, as they release high levels of methane that harm the environment.

There is no single solution to the issue of waste management — change will require buy-in from national and regional governments, companies that produce excess waste, and individuals who need to accept lifestyle changes to play their part. 

Consumers can do their part to reduce waste using some of the tips listed above. Embracing a low-waste lifestyle can not only help you take responsibility for your eco-friendly goals, but also enable you to share your experiences with others and begin taking steps for collective action to reduce our reliance on landfills.

About the Author

Image of the author - Evelyn LongEvelyn Long is the editor-in-chief of Renovated, where she covers sustainable housing and improved building techniques for readers interested in a greener future.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the biggest landfill in the world?

The biggest formal landfill in the world is the Apex Regional Landfill in Las Vegas, Nevada. This landfill is 2,200 acres big and holds 50 million tons of waste. The Apex Region Landfill is expected to have capacity for over 200 years of waste. Read the full article for more info on big landfills.

What happens when a landfill is full?

Waste management practices differ by locality. When regulated landfills are full, they are topped with clay and a plastic shield to contain environmental runoff. Soil is added to the top regularly to lace the waste layer with dirt. Modern systems will also vent the methane produced by decomposing waste or save it to collect as a source of energy. It’s important for waste management facilities to continue to monitor landfills even when they close. This maintenance includes monitoring groundwater, adding more layers of soil and dealing with methane. Read the full article for more on landfill management.

What is a sanitary landfill?

Sanitary landfills are carefully regulated systems where waste is contained from the environment until it is safe. Sanitary landfills aim to isolate contaminants from the surrounding soil and groundwater until the waste is degraded enough to be more safely restored. This requires smart engineering, land selection and ongoing trained staffing. Sanitary landfills are more expensive to maintain, meaning it’s easier for richer countries to invest in this infrastructure. Many poorer countries are more likely to have open dumpsites due to the high cost and resource investment of sanitary landfills. Read the full article for more info on sanitary landfills.

References and Useful Resources

EPA: Basic Information on Landfills

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control: How Landfills Work

Statista: Average Cost to Landfill Municipal Solid Waste in the United States in 2019 and 2020

World Bank: Trends in Solid Waste Management 

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