a little about landfills

The purpose of recycling is to keep as much still-usable trash out of landfills as possible. With landfills being large, smelly waste sites around the world, understanding them can help put the importance of recycling into perspective.

Thanks to lots of regulation, landfills these days are not simply holes in the ground filled with trash, as they were for many years. Solid waste landfills must be designed to protect the environment from contaminants that can be present in the solid waste stream.

Today's landfills are technologically advanced and have even become a reliable source for alternative energy as landfill gases are tapped and sold to businesses and municipalities (which is the case with New York's Freshkills Park.) Over time, the trash in the landfills produces and emits methane gas. By harvesting the methane emitting from Fresh Kills, the Sanitation Department is producing enough energy to heat approximately 22,000 homes.

Municipal solid waste landfills receive household waste, non-hazardous sludge, industrial solid waste and construction and demolition debris. All MSWLFs must comply with the federal or equivalent state regulations. Federal standards include location restrictions, composite liners requirements, leachate collection and removal systems, operating practices, groundwater monitoring requirements, closure and post-closure care requirements, corrective action provisions and financial assurance.

The composite liners requirements involve a flexible membrane overlaying two feet of compacted clay soil lining the bottom and sides of the landfill, protect groundwater and the underlying soil from leachate (chemicals or other harmful materials) releases.

Nearly all municipal landfills are required to monitor the underlying groundwater for contamination during their active life and post-closure care period. The groundwater monitoring system consists of a series of wells placed upgradient and downgradient of the landfill.

Special waste items include household appliances, including ones that use refrigerants, which are harmful to the environment. Municipal landfills must follow special procedures when disposing of these items.

The EPA keeps their regulations posted online. They also discuss the effects of landfills on public health, including subsurface migration, surface emissions/air pollution and odor nuisance. Since landfill gases contain approximately 50 percent methane, it is possible for the gases to travel underground, accumulate in enclosed structures and ignite. Incidences of subsurface migration have caused fires and explosions on both landfill property and private property.

Possibly the biggest health and environmental concerns are related to the uncontrolled surface emissions of landfill gases into the air. Carbon dioxide, methane, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants and odorous compounds can negatively affect public health and the environment. For example, carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change. 

Beyond household or commercial solid waste, construction waste is a very large component of trash. One of the local waste companies, Angco Disposal, handles construction site waste with large dumpsters and manages proper disposal.

Materials that cannot go into solid waste landfills include common household items such as paints, cleaners/chemicals, motor oil, batteries and pesticides. These hazardous waste items can be dangerous to our health and the environment. This is why saving hazardous materials for Lafayette's Household Chemical Collection Day is so important! Don't throw it into your regular trash.

You may think that throwing something away is easier than recycling it, but just as much care should go into proper disposal whether it's thrown away or recycled. Even though they are strictly regulated, iIt's important to keep harmful chemicals and materials out of landfills. With the popularity of single-stream recycling, it takes the same amount of effort to place the proper items in a recycling bin. It's important to know what can be accepted in your trashcan or recycling bin, and what is not accepted that must be specially collected.

As a reminder that there's only so much land we have to work with, lots of famous sites are built on top of landfills. San Francisco's Marina District; Boston's Millennium Park (championed by the late former mayor Thomas Menino), Logan Airport and parts of Beacon Hill; Cleveland Municipal Stadium; and New York's Freshkills Park are just a few landmarks making their home on top of former landfills.

Do we really want to live so much among our trash? By keeping our waste down, we can avoid the need for expanding landfills.

Curious where Louisiana's landfills are located? There are 26 Type I and Type II landfills around the state, with Type I classified for industrial solid waste and Type II classified for residential or commercial solid waste.

One final fun fact: According to the University of Southern Indiana, the U.S. is the number one trash-producing country in the world at 1,609 pounds per person per year. This means that 5% of the world's people generate 40% of the world's waste.

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