Landfill and global warming. What’s the link?

8 November 2017

Waste may be contributing more to climate change than scientists previously believed. In 2016, the UK dumped 15% more trash into landfills than formerly estimated or reported, which has led to greater emissions than expected.

Consider the following: the Earth’s population – all 7 billion of us – generate 1.2kg of waste per person every day, amounting to 1.3 billion tonnes per year. By 2025, this is likely to rise to about 2.2 billion tonnes per year. A large amount of the waste we produce, generally around 59% for both higher and lower-income countries, ends up in landfill. 

Whether we know it or not, the waste that gets dumped in these landfills can wreak havoc with regards to climate change and global warming. But how exactly does this occur and what is the inextricable link between landfills and global warming? Here we’ll go into the undesirable effects of landfill usage and their contribution to global warming as a whole.

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What is the significance of methane gas towards global warming?

the effects of landfill

Before we answer that question, here’s a quick primer on landfill design. Generally, a landfill is a piece of land which is first lined with clay and then covered with a sheet of flexible plastic. Drains and pipes are also put in place to collect a liquid, called leachate, which seeps from the waste. Soil is needed to cover fresh waste every day, and once the landfill has reached its capacity, the waste is covered with more clay and another plastic sheet.

Since this waste is simply “stored” as opposed to broken down, it releases methane gas, the greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Methane is twenty-three times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, which is the most prevalent greenhouse gas. Since a lot of landfills contain organic waste like food and paper, the potential for methane emissions is very high.

In fact, Defra estimates that landfills are the third-highest contributor of methane emissions in the UK, with nearly a fifth of all methane emissions coming from these waste disposal sites. While landfills employ methane gas collection technology, researchers say that these methods need to be improved at open landfill sites.

“Today we’re dumping 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the environment, and tomorrow we will dump more, and there is no effective worldwide response. Until we start sharply reducing global-warming pollution, I will feel that I have failed.” - Al Gore.

What can we do to reduce methane emissions?

computer landfill

Some modern landfills claim they can collect methane through a layer of pipes placed on top of the waste layer of pipes placed on top of the waste layer, whereas others say they can vent methane and then burn it to produce energy. While this may be considered as an industry best practice for the industry, it doesn’t entirely solve the issue.

Proper management of waste disposal and effective recycling is needed to decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to save energy. In recent years, new legislation has been introduced to reduce methane emissions, but this course of action focuses on the oil and gas industry, and doesn’t tackle key contributors of methane emissions such as landfills and agriculture.

As urbanisation moves people into cities, waste increases, making the need to deal with the problem of pollution from landfills even more pressing. The United Nations predicts that cities around the globe could see their populations rise by 2.5 billion by 2050.

“As that urbanisation occurs, you have more materiality, more consumption, and that begets residuals of waste materials.” - Jon T. Powell, Yale University Researcher.

So, what’s needed is a commitment to waste prevention and reuse, as well as recycling and composting, because these strategies reduce more pollution, save more energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than any other action. Over in the US, the EPA and Department of Agriculture set a target to reduce food waste by 50 per cent by 2030, with programs for public education and commercial policies.

Strategies to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill

Food waste

Reduce and retain food waste

And we can apply the remit of these policies to our own lives too. Reducing food wastage cuts harmful methane emissions, so be mindful of what you’re throwing out. From here, we can turn what remains, along with garden waste, into compost rather than sending it to landfills. 

Send waste to a centralised anaerobic digestion facility

These facilities are sealed systems that more readily capture methane for energy generation than compared to landfills. While they can function as stand-alone units, they’re also being incorporated into wastewater plants that treat sewage more and more, where they can process scraps of food kind of like an enormous mechanical stomach.

For more of the latest news, guides and features from the CDL team, click here to visit our blog. If you’d like to find out more about our IT disposal solutions, visit our homepage or call our team now on 0333 060 5623.


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