Posts Tagged ‘green house gas


to burn or to bury

Incineration process at Roeselare, Belgium

Incineration process at Roeselare, Belgium

Some time ago, I wrote about the vehement opposition of the U.S. environmental movement to garbage incineration (a brief primer on plumes), a position not shared by environmentalists anywhere else except the UK. I asked Milieudefensie, the Dutch Friends of the Earth, to offer me some thoughts on the subject, to try to determine if I had somehow missed the secret garbage underground in continental Europe. Here’s what they had to say:

“Waste management is not a subject Milieudefensie concerns itself with at the moment, because things are properly arranged in the Netherlands. Other environmental topics, such as climate change, make a more urgent claim on our attention.”

The way things are arranged in the Netherlands at the moment is to rely primarily on re-use and recycling and secondarily on incineration. Thirteen incinerators operate across the country, some in the most densely populated areas, a few others in the rural outback. Landfilling takes place only insofar as there is insufficient incinerator capacity and requires a special waiver. Hazardous wastes which are unsafe to burn are also landfilled. Germany has an even stronger emphasis on incineration, with plants all over the country, and no movement opposing them. An official noted that people oppose incinerators during the planning phases. Resistance dies down after the plants become operational.

There are concerns.  Fine particulates are released in exhaust gases and their health impacts are not very well understood. Fly ash is highly toxic and must be buried or incinerated in special rotating kiln incinerators. Toxic chemicals may escape when a plant is powered up or down. That they are so much more visible than lowly landfill, I’m sure, doesn’t increase their popularity either. It is so much easier not to think about the deleterious but invisible effects of an invisible landfill than it is to ignore a very high smokestack belching clouds, with heaven knows what in them.

Cross-cut incinerator

Cross-cut incinerator

The EPA meanwhile appears to be solidly in line with Milieudefensie in its evaluation of various disposal methods when considered in terms of their net effect on global warming. Its report Solid Waste Management and Green House Gases rank orders the different methods from least to most harmful:

> source reduction (i.e., reduced consumption or reduced use of materials in consumption)

> recycling

> composting

> incineration

> landfilling

Obviously there are more attractive options than burning trash, but conventional landfilling isn’t one of them. (Experiments with landfill are under way to make them less environmentally wasteful, so to speak.)

Rotating kiln incinerator, used to burn toxins

Rotating kiln incinerator, used to burn toxins

I also ran into a different evaluation of waste disposal methods, by a Dr. Jeffrey Morris, which tries to attach a monetary cost to each method, calculating operating and environmental costs and subtracting environmental benefits. Constituent prices vary by location and over time, so this model is more difficult to generalize from. However, a few specific examples from that calculation, showed incineration finishing dead last. This is not terribly surprising, since operating costs for incineration are generally high while landfilling is still cheap in many places. A landfill, no matter how carefully engineered, doesn’t come close to an incinerator in terms of capital costs.

Incineration, unfortunately, may be too expensive outside the industrialized west. While waste prevention is more attractive than any other option, the total elimination of waste is an unlikely  prospect. It follows that landfill will just have to be organized to do better–capturing methane more effectively and delivering more usable fuel. And in the meantime, the economy is in process of imposing a new frugality, which will eventually lead to less waste, if it isn’t doing so already.


not what it seems

Regional Sports Complex, Fresno

Regional Sports Complex, Fresno

The Fresno Sanitary Landfill is a national historic landmark. It is also a superfund site. Yet, if you were to drive by unarmed with inside information, you would come away with the notion that it actually is a regional sports complex, as proclaimed by the large sign in front of the dump. Not all elements of reality, obviously, are equally attractive. And not everybody is equally eager to point them all out.

In 2001, Martin Melosi, the country’s foremost environmental historian, working with the NPS, sought to redress the sad lack of attention to sanitation—undoubtedly a very important part of our society—in the register of national historic landmarks. They proposed the Fresno municipal dump as the first “true” sanitary landfill in the US. That is, it was the first dump in which organic garbage was buried in compartments, first introduced in 1937. A trench was dug for the trash, which was then covered up with the dirt dug up out of the next trench.

I love words in general, but garbage has produced some special gems. My favorite is “clean dirt,” for the layer that goes on top of the garbage that closes the trench. “Sanitary landfill” isn’t bad either, but more on that later.

The FSL nomination was successful. The secretary of the interior, Gale Norton, put the landfill on the register, but without paying attention to the fact that it was just then in the final stages of a superfund cleanup. The press got a hold of this tidbit and had a field day of fun and sneers with it. I think some people objected to the mere notion of commemorating a garbage dump. Other people felt that the superfund status automatically disqualified the dump as a landmark. Secretary Norton promptly did an about-face and tried to take FSL off the register again. It turns out, however, that the procedure for removing a landmark from the register is as cumbersome as the procedure for adding one. Thank heaven for bureaucracy.

I personally think that FSL’s landmark status is perfect. I’d be very happy to put a few more garbage dumps on the register. I’m with Melosi all the way. Garbage matters. However, I also believe that superfund status obviates the use of “sanitary” in front of “landfill.” The trenching method was a nice idea, cutting down on odors and pests. But history has shown that it made burial of garbage no less dangerous, only more superficially acceptable. Arguably, trenching has been harmful, in facilitating an almost exclusive reliance on landfilling without any real environmental safeguards for almost 40 years, from the 1930s to the 1970s. And the safeguards that have been put in place since then are by no means foolproof. (See a brief primer on plumes for more detail.)

Fresno dump, with plume

In the case of FSL, the trash was poisoning air and groundwater.  People living nearby complained. The City of Fresno became alarmed at its own measurements of methane and volatile organic compounds, including vinyl chloride and trans-1,2-dichloroethene, in groundwater. It tried, unsuccessfully, to put some containment systems in place in the 1990s. The dump became a superfund site, and the EPA did a “cleanup” project in 2001.

There’s another word. When I hear “cleanup,” I think of a process with a defined end result, of clean-ness, spic-and-span-ness, unpolluted, dirt-free, pure wholesome-ness. That is not how the EPA cleans up.

An EPA cleanup is more typically an effort at containment, a way to encapsulate pollutants and prevent their further spread. It might consist of a system to capture methane and flare it off, and another system to capture leachate and divert it to the water purification system, and finally some layers to minimize the penetration of rainwater. I understand that such an approach may be financially more appealing than the kind of operation one envisions at the word “cleanup,” but it’s not exactly a permanent solution. And it doesn’t always work.

The 2005 inspection of the FSL revealed a host of issues, including methane above acceptable levels and further migration of toxins, both wider and deeper, as they appeared to be moving from shallow aquifers into deeper ones. Some remedial actions were recommended, but no further reports have been published.

Jensen Avenue, running north of Fresno dump

Jensen Avenue, running north of Fresno dump

In the meantime, above-ground, FSL is a really boring hill, bristling with little pipes like birthday candles. It takes up some 145 acres in the middle of what looks, to me, like really scraggly farmland only a short step away from outright desert. Dusty vineyards and tired-looking orange groves groves are holding on for dear life, in between falling-down houses and farm implements laid out for sale near the road. Trash festoons all the high fences. Rottweilers pace the naked yards.

In its 2005 inspection report, the EPA recommends a survey to ascertain whether any endangered species are dependent on the neighborhood for habitat. I’m thinking t might be time to worry about the humans too.

P.S.: I hear from the city of Fresno that methane levels are acceptable these days and that a new pumping system helps prevent the spread of contaminants in the deeper aquifers. It seems the athletes will be quite safe.


a brief primer on plumes

The United States may have as many as 100,00 landfills, large and small. A significant proportion of them doesn’t have a liner.

A plume visualized by cross-cut

A plume visualized by cross-cut

Contaminants from landfill leach into groundwater in unsavory plumes containing heavy metals, chlorinated compounds, and hospital germs, to mention just a few of the ingredients. Take Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, which is built in a tidal swamp. The tides wash into its bed unhampered and wash out leachate, an estimated 3 million liters of it every day (which is almost 800,000 gallons). Under certain conditions, some of the contaminants from landfill may be cleaned up by naturally occurring processes, as a study at the Norman, Oklahoma, landfill has shown. but not nearly all of them. Moreover, it takes time.

In addition to leachate, landfills release methane, which is created when organics decompose when there is no oxygen and which contributes heavily to global warming. In fact, landfill methane is thought to account for about 5% of the total annual increase in “radiative force” that lies behind the greenhouse effect.  In other words, the adverse effects of landfill are both local and global. Back to Fresh Kills for a moment: according to a 1998 estimate, it releases 2,650 tons of methane a day. Perhaps that number is reduced somewhat since dumping stopped (in 2001), but it can’t be by much. After all, the garbage is still there quietly percolating under the skin of dirt that covers it up.

How long it takes for a dump to stop being a source of pollution is not yet known. Under normal conditions, most organic materials will decompose to clays and other natural substances in about 30 years. But in landfills, conditions are not normal. The stuff is packed in so tight that not enough air and water gets to it for the decomposition to proceed apace, in part because these huge piles we build cocoon much of the trash inside them, in part because sanitary engineers try to halt the decomposition process to prevent leaks.

On the whole, then,  there’s not enough air and water to speed along biodegration, too much air and water to prevent contamination and outgassing.

Guadalupe landfill, San Jose, CA

Guadalupe landfill, San Jose, CA

The serious environmental impact of landfilling our waste was not fully recognized until the 1970s, when the EPA began to insist on an engineering standard to contain leachate and methane, at least to some extent. All the same, the EPA recognizes that no liner is equal to the environmental stresses to which it will likely be subjected over its lifetime. Sooner or later, that leachate plume will emerge. And no methane collection system comes close to capturing all the gas generated in our trash heaps.

In the decades after the EPA established regulations, many of the older unlined, unengineered dumps were closed. In some cases, remediation systems were subsequently put in place. Most dumps, however, were simply taken out of operation and covered up. I’m sure it’s a good thing to stop adding to the problem, but closing a landfill to new arrivals doesn’t in any way mean that current occupants are no longer leaving. “Closed” really isn’t quite the word for a landfill at which the garbage trucks have stopped coming. Neither is “inactive.”

A few of the very worst landfills have been cleaned up, such as the infamous Love Canal dump in Niagara Falls. Much depends, it seems, on local activists. In other cases, cleanup is really unimaginable. Think of Fresh Kills again, which contains 67,000,000 cubic meters of compacted trash in four mountains spreading over 12 hectares of land (or 2,366,082,670 cubic feet spread out over 2200 acres). Perhaps we can expect improved containment systems in the future, but cleanup is hardly in the cards for a country that has squandered much of its wealth in the pursuit of ever greater riches.

Why exactly do we have landfills if they are so bad? Why are new landfills still being made?

It’s not that there is no alternative. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, all non-recyclable, non-hazardous waste is burned. In 40 years of heavy reliance on incineration, there have been no environmental disasters. From what I can understand, incinerators don’t scrub every last pollutant out of the exhaust gases, but their overall environmental impact is considerably less severe than the cumulative effect of landfill when considered over the entire life of the garbage.

From all my reading on the subject, I can distill only two reasons why landfilling is still standard practice in this country, despite severe environmental consequences:

> Space is still cheap, and landfills are relatively simple to build, requiring modest upfront capital investment, even now that more engineering is required.

> The environmental movement has organized very aggressively against incineration. In Fat of the Land, Ben Miller explains that environmental organizations feared that incineration would stand in the way of recycling. They scared people half to death with the notion of toxic ashes left over after combustion, and all over the country they turned out crowds to protest very effectively. Too bad if it was under false pretenses. Incinerator ash doesn’t contain any toxins that aren’t to be found in the dump. Burning doesn’t create toxins, although of course it does get rid of biohazards. Ash is significantly more stable than household garbage.

Northwest Incinerator

Northwest Incinerator

Of course this is not to say that every incinerator necessarily runs as it’s meant to. The Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which has devoured some of my own trash, seems to have been in violation of safety standards much of the time.

If Miller’s supposition is true, it’s a sad chapter in the history of the environmental movement. Here we are, 30 years later, with a handfull of incinerators, 100,000 leaky landfills, and 100,000 plumes, large and small. , a mere handfull of incinerators (a few of them them–I will say this–perpetually in violation of safety standards, such as the Northwest incinerator in Chicago), and no recycling yet in lots of places.

Fortunately, new developments are underfoot. With the rising price of oil, the larger landfills have started turning captured methane into usable fuel. There are experiments with bioreactor landfill, in which the trash is treated to decompose faster and release more methane (for fuel) under more controlled circumstances. A new generation of incinerators is being built, which would burn garbage at higher temperatures, posing even less environmental risk. I’ve heard they can mine old landfills for fuel, which would mean that some of those 100,000 could perhaps finally disappear.

More on Fresh Kills:

love letters and  cabbage leaves

landscape inspirations

More about trash in Chicago:

connecting the dots

June 2017
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