I don’t understand what’s so bad about sending things to the landfill. Why are landfills bad?
-Tina K., FL
Landfills get a bad rap — but with modern landfills, it’s not so much the landfill itself that’s bad, as it is the amount of stuff in landfills that’s bad.
As recently as the 1980s, trash was sent to “open dumps” that leaked dangerous liquids into nearby groundwater, attracted pests, were fire hazards, and just plain smelled bad. Local communities often faced health and environmental problems as landfills polluted water supplies and affected local habitats.
Today’s landfills must follow strict government regulations that address the issues of yesterday’s landfills. And while regulations make landfills safer for the environment and nearby communities, modern engineering has also helped landfills become more environmentally-beneficial parts of the national waste management system: Some landfills can even capture byproducts of the waste’s decomposition and convert them into a valuable alternative energy source.
While landfills themselves have improved, all the stuff in landfills still represent a loss to the environment and the economy. For example, as much as 50% of all landfill space is taken up by paper, much of which could have been recycled. Had all that paper been recycled, more energy and resources (like trees and water) could have been saved — we could have used that paper, rather than trees, to make new paper. Plus, as all that stuff in landfills decomposes, it creates methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. In fact, landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.
To reduce what you send to a landfill:
- Only buy what you need.
- Look for recyclable products when shopping.
- Try to reuse and donate before tossing something away.
- Recycle and compost everything you can.