Waste Disposal Effect on Environment
Solid waste disposal is one of those rare endeavors where success breeds anonymity. To the credit of local waste management agencies and contractors, their service is highly inconspicuous in northeastern Illinois. This low profile belies the importance and complexity of efficient trash collection, and veils many impacts of municipal solid waste (MSW) policy from our everyday lives.
Like other environmental elements, waste does not follow regional borders. From an email survey that we conducted of the solid waste professionals in the region, there was a general feeling that rural areas were burdened with waste exported from urbanized areas and were therefore left to deal with the various impacts associated with disposal, particularly landfilling.
To better analyze these impacts, this report divides them into four categories: environmental, economic and land-use-related. Each will be described in detail and linked to potential strategies for maximizing the efficiency, capacity, and environmental stewardship of our waste management services well into 2040.
- Hazardous gas emissions: In 1987, the EPA estimated that the nation's 7, 124 landfills emitted 15 million tons of methane per year and 300, 000 tons of other gases like toluene and methylene chloride (Philips, 1998). As mentioned earlier in the report, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and landfills contributed 23% of total emissions in 2006 (USEPA, 2008). In addition to its effect in the ozone layer, methane is also a highly combustible gas that may be responsible for various explosion hazards in and around landfills.
- Water Quality/Contamination: There is no expert consensus about the impact of MSW on surface and groundwater sources. Some argue that even common MSW items such as newspaper pose a significant risk to water quality, while others argue that the effect of landfills on groundwater would be negligible if hazardous materials (e.g. motor oil, paint, chemicals, incinerator ashes) were prohibited from the sites (Johnson, 1978 and DeLong, 1993). Experts also argue that while leachate is a clear environmental liability, the frequency and severity of leachate-related problems is uncertain and can be minimized through proper siting and sealing measures. However, if leachate does seep into groundwater, it can be the source of many contaminants, specifically organic compounds that may decrease the oxidation-reduction potential and increase the mobility of toxic metals (Kelly, 2002). Locally, some solid waste managers catch errant leachate and pump it back into the landfill. This process helps keep it from seeping away and actually hastens the decomposition of the landfill contents.
- Energy Consumption: As a community's tolerance for landfills decreases, they are moved farther from densely populated areas, requiring collection trucks to drive farther distances to unload. Also, the complexity of collection routes can affect energy consumption. This frequent and lengthy travel by gas-consuming vehicles is also detrimental to air quality and results in increased green house gases.
- Natural Habitat Degradation: As land is claimed for landfills, it is no longer hospitable to many plants and wildlife. Often, this fertility cannot be completely reclaimed, even after the landfill is capped.
- Biodegradation: Responsibly sited and managed landfills are often preferred over other waste disposal methods, such as incineration, because, aside from being more economical, they allow most waste to decay safely and naturally. Conversely, the positive effects of biodegradation are often overstated when, in reality, landfills tend to mummify their contents, severely prolonging oxidation and natural breakdown processes (DeLong, 1993).