The ever-mounting landfill woes

Sanitary landfills, waste dumps, garbage dumps or rubbish dumps — all these are synonymous with pollution, ground water contamination, smog, stench, smoldering fires etc. It seems that all of this inevitably accompanies human habitation. Whether you are rich or poor, living in the East or the West, North or the South — you have a landfill in your life.

Why landfills are a problem
Unfortunately most landfills are not selected after due diligence or even properly designed. Most just got converted to landfills by default or by accident. Therefore, one would hardly find any safeguards in them. A properly designed landfill site should look like this:


Yes, few landfills are properly selected and well designed. However, even the best-designed landfills have a failure rate of 82%, as was discovered by Leak Location Services during a survey.  Furthermore, they need not be so humongous and overwhelming, or so obnoxious.

Landfill facts
There is hardly a city that does not have landfills. In fact, some cities have 3 to 4 or even more. The increasing per capita waste generation coupled with rapidly rising population is adding to the woes. And so is the need for more landfills, larger landfills. So where are we heading? Will landfills overwhelm us? Will they take over all our urban space? No – not in the near future and certainly not, if we do something about it – NOW. It also makes commercial sense to handle the landfill problem effectively. After all, they occupy prime urban real estate. A rough estimate puts the value of Delhi’s landfill sites at 40 Billion Rupees (approx US $ 620 Million). The existing sites are overflowing and choked and therefore an additional 8 landfill sites have been identified!  Therefore, the total real estate value of the city’s landfill sites would jump from 40 billion to 100 billion Rupees (over US $ 1.5 Billion).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. has 3,091 active landfills and over 10,000 old municipal landfills. There may be more, that may be old and abandoned private, commercial and municipal dumps. (In many countries, all the landfills may not even be documented, making it all the more difficult to evaluate.) One of the world’s largest dumps is in Los Angeles – Puente Hills Landfill. It covers nearly 700 acres and towers 500 feet.

Photo: Wallofhair/Creative Commons

New Delhi also has its own tales to tell. The current four dump yards are seen to be competing with the city’s landmark monument – the ‘Qutub Minar’ in terms of height.

Photo courtesy: The Indian Express

Biodegradable won’t biodegrade in a landfill
Materials that are inherently biodegradable in soil will not biodegrade in a landfill because the artificial landfill environment lacks essential conditions required for the decay process. A group at the University of Arizona, has unearthed hot dogs, corncobs and grapes that were twenty-five years old and still recognizable, as well as newspapers dating back to 1952 that were still easily readable.

So why are so much of our valuable resources taken up with garbage collection, management and disposal? New York spends US$ 300 million annually on its waste management. But they have started saving US$ 85 million a year by recycling 35% organic waste,. That is a good start, which others need to emulate.

Landfills are not the universal solution
It is beyond question that landfills are unavoidable. But we need to manage them well. Moreover everything need not go to the landfills. This will also help in keeping the size of landfills in check and more manageable.

Not just the landfills, but even the collection dumps take up substantial prime land. If we take into account every neighborhood collection dump in addition to the existing landfills, we would have an area much greater than that is documented. The trick is to reduce the size of landfills. And also reduce the size of the local dump yards. It is easy. It is logical. It is doable.

  • First of all let us stop mixing up waste. Just as we keep salt and pepper separately to maintain their usability, let us also put wet and dry waste in separate containers.
  • Food scraps and kitchen waste is biodegradable. It can cause stench whereas old beer bottles and plastics do not. The latter should be recycled and the former composted.
  • We ultimately pay for our garbage in the short term. After all it the taxpayers who pay for the budget of the civic authorities.
  • We also pay for garbage in the long term! The landfills pollute the air, ground and surface water and the soil as well. We are the ones affected by it — as well as our future generations.
  • If we can recycle the recyclable material, including CDW (construction and demolition waste) and compost the biodegradable, then the size of the landfill can be reduced up to 90%. Wonderful, is it not!

Pollution caused by transportation of waste
Pollution is not caused just at the landfills! Today the waste travels many miles through a few interim storage places before it reaches its final resting place. This journey can vary from a few miles to hundreds of miles. The landfills at times even go across state boundaries.
Waste from New York travels as far as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and upstate NY, traversing several hundred miles.

One ton of garbage traveling 500 miles by train from New York to the Mountain State would generate 115 pounds of carbon dioxide. The pollution would be much more if the waste travelled by road. Transportation of waste leaves a huge carbon footprint.

Delhi currently ferries about 1800 trucks every day to the landfills. The carbon dioxide generated in transportation alone could be 8000 to 9000 MT depending upon the types of vehicles used. By the time the waste reaches the dump yard, methane is also produced. Methane is 30 times more potent than CO2 as a heat-trapping gas.

So the question is — are we really saving in terms of greenhouse gas emissions by transporting our waste to far away landfills? The answer probably is NO. As a researcher put it – The train trips to West Virginia generate about 40 percent more carbon-dioxide equivalents than the methane, the garbage would have released in its first year at an old school, in-state dump.

Recycle local; compost local
So isn’t it wiser to manage our waste locally? Decentralization is the key. If every home, community, locality manage their own wet waste, as much as 60% of the waste need not travel to the landfills. The collection and utilization of recyclables would be easier and efficient. Only the non-recyclable 10% to 15% need go to the landfills. This is simple and achievable — just the masses need to be initiated and involved. Agencies that recycle paper, plastics, metals, electronics need to be encouraged or incentivized. It should be mandatory for  localities to compost wet waste within its periphery. Sensitize the public. Spread awareness so that individuals are inspired to start composting even within their homes. Put in place strict punitive measures. Voila – the job is done.

Pankaj Nigam

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