Does your trash make climate change worse?

Article by Isabel Key and Sebastian Baucutt.

About 37% of waste produced globally goes to landfill; another 31% is simply dumped, whilst 19% is recovered through recycling or composting, and 11% is burnt [1]. Let’s focus on landfill – huge holes in the ground filled with rubbish [2]. When organic matter (food, plants, paper etc.) sits in landfill, it is broken down by tiny bacteria and fungi which release a lot of methane in the process [3].

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, although it stays in the atmosphere for a shorter time [4]. Globally, landfills are the third biggest source of methane emissions from humans, after energy generation and livestock [3,5,6].

What can we do about these emissions? One option is to capture the methane, together with other ‘landfill gas’ [3]. This can be done by sucking air out of wells in the landfill site, a bit like using a vacuum cleaner [3]! The landfill gas can then be used instead of conventional natural gas to generate electricity [3]. Although it produces only about half as much heat per litre of gas, it is a reliable source of energy that can be produced 24 hour per day (unlike wind and solar) [3,7].

Another environmental problem caused by landfills is that liquid contaminated with waste can leak out from the bottom of the pit [8]. This can enter underground water (groundwater), in turn contaminating water supplies for people [8,9,10]. Landfills that are properly lined, however, should be able to avoid this problem [8,11].

In the next few posts we’ll look at how we can reduce the negative impacts of landfill by producing less waste in the first place [12], and how we can avoid landfill by using waste to generate energy for human use [13].


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