human activity is the production of waste. This waste can range from common everyday waste and food leftovers generated by a typical European or North American household to residual and hazardous waste generated by manufacturing. Its disposal has become a multi-billion-dollar industry.
According to Eurostat, the average European household generated 475 Kg of waste annually in 2014. While per the United States EPA “Advancing Sustainable Materials Fact Sheet” 2015 the average U.S. citizen generated 730 Kg/year. The range of waste generated by households of each country vary dramatically. For example, at the high end of the spectrum in Europe is Switzerland which generates 730 Kg/year. While at the low end is Romania which generates an average of 272 Kg/year. The amount of waste generated by each country is impacted by factors such as economic wealth, consumption patterns, recycling capabilities, and the ability to collect and manage the waste.
Modern Sanitary Landfills must meet a strict set of engineering standards and criteria as part of their construction. Some of the elements include elaborated systems to drain wastewater, and to collect gas. When considering all the design requirements that go into a modern landfill you would think that environmental issues are minimal. However, each of these engineered systems can malfunction or breakdown which then leads to environmental problems.
For instance, the gas collection system in many landfills can become plugged up due to rain infiltration and settlement of the waste. The outcome is the gas percolation through soil to the surface and release into the atmosphere.
Another issue can occur with the piping and drainage layers designed to remove the wastewater generated in the decomposition process. The waste liquid generated is known by the name of leachate. Leachate can contain all sorts of contaminants. The leachate is to be drained through a leachate collection system to eventually be treated onsite by a wastewater treatment plant and then properly disposed.
The problem is that the collections systems can become clogged, or during major storm events overwhelmed by the amount rainwater entering the landfill generating large amounts of leachate. When this happens, the wastewater finds other locations to be released by the landfill. Or more exactly, you will have leachate seepage which if not immediately contained and repaired could make its way offsite to contaminate local streams, tributaries, and groundwater. Any leachate leaking from the landfill will result in various chemicals being released into the local environment which could include heavy metals, organic, and inorganic compounds which are concentrated due to the rainwater percolating through the compacted waste.
Along with the common household waste that is allowed to be disposed in a Sanitary Landfill are other waste streams that may be accidentally disposed. These wastes make their way into landfills despite strict quality assurance procedures and precautions taken onsite. Such wastes include infectious, radioactive, hazardous, and electronic wastes. Each of these waste streams when improperly disposed of cause their own unique environmental hazards both for the workers on site and local neighbors that adjoin the landfill.
Another set of environmental issues associated with the daily operation of landfills could range from windblown paper and plastics offsite, dust generated from truck and equipment traffic, and associated noise pollution.
As recycling technologies and programs grow the need for these types of landfills should diminish. However, one should note that economic incentives generated by waste disposal will continue to be a major factor for construction of these landfills worldwide. A landfill that is permitted to take up to 2000 metric tons per day at $100/ton could generate $1.2Million per week or an average of $60Million per year.
Despite the obvious drawbacks and potential for environmental problems the economic incentive derived by large corporations will continue to be a governing factor on the construction and use of landfills for the disposal of the waste each of us generates daily.
If you would like to find out more on Sanitary Landfills I recommend “What A Waste” by the World Bank 2012.