How Do Landfills Contribute to Global Warming and What Can We Do About It?

When it comes to methane emissions, we all think of cows—but landfills are a big culprit, too. Find out how landfills contribute to global warming, and what we can do to reduce our impact.
Posted on
December 29, 2021
 How Do Landfills Contribute to Global Warming and What Can We Do About It?

Whether it’s spring cleaning, the fall closet turnover or just an everyday effort to replace the old with the new, we toss out a lot of stuff.

Think ripped T-shirts, worn-out shoes and even our partner’s old sleeping bag. 

When we’re in the thick of it all, in that all-consuming get-it-done cleaning fervor, it’s often easiest just to bag those items and throw them out with the trash, alongside so many more things, like the takeout coffee cups and greasy pizza boxes that can’t be recycled.

And, for those of us without compost bins, the banana peels, eggshells and coffee grounds we produce in our kitchens.

Black garbage bags filled with trash overflowing the side of a city street
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

What happens to the things we throw away?

Here’s the dirt on where those items go.

Once trash ends up in the back of a garbage truck, it’s not long before it makes its way to the landfill. And suddenly, that T-shirt, pizza box and banana peel are sitting among numerous other pieces of garbage. 

Why is sending material to landfill bad?

If the things we send to landfill aren't incinerated (which instantly releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere), they’ll take years to break down (far more for anything plastic).

During this time, anything organic — that means food waste, textiles like cotton and wool, paper, and other items that come from plants or animals — will emit methane, a greenhouse gas that’s a big driver of global warming.

Now picture this happening in the 2,627 landfills spread out across the U.S. — because that’s exactly what’s occurring.

How much textile waste is in landfills?

Seventeen million tons of textiles ended up in landfills in 2018, according to the EPA.

How much food waste is in landfills?

As for food waste, it accounts for 24 percent of all landfill refuse. While the EPA reports that 32.1 per cent of municipal solid waste was recycled and composted, there’s still a lot that could be redirected.

Is there anything we can do to reduce landfill waste?

Halting this process isn’t rocket science. With some smart planning, we can easily divert more waste from landfills, and capture the gases that remain to turn them into a useful fuel source.

In so doing, we can reduce landfills’ impact on the environment — and make a significant dent in the acceleration of global warming.

Before we dig deeper into the possible solutions, let’s better understand how waste disposal is affecting climate change.

A garbage truck disposing of waste at a landfill
Photo by Dani Argandona on Unsplash

How does waste disposal contribute to global warming?

Landfills are designed with many layers of sand, gravel or plastic mesh to absorb contaminants as well as liners that protect the surrounding soil and groundwater.

In 2018, American consumers threw out 292.4 million tons of waste, according to the EPA. That’s almost 5 pounds per person every day.

Those items need to go somewhere, a location where they’ll be burned, compacted, drained off or recycled. Although landfills are seen as major drivers of pollution, they are actually set up to manage the potentially harmful effects they can have, such as leachate, a liquid created by decomposing garbage, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Landfills are designed with many layers of sand, gravel or plastic mesh designed to absorb contaminants as well as liners that protect the surrounding soil and groundwater. The trouble is, landfill management can only go so far.

Landfills produce methane and carbon dioxide

Here’s the lowdown on how landfills operate: landfills accept waste, compact it, and cover it with soil or clay. In some cases, garbage is first incinerated to reduce landfill volumes. That’s when you might see that T-shirt and sleeping bag go up in flames, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.

As for waste that isn’t incinerated, it begins to decompose, broken down by hungry aerobic and then anaerobic bacteria. So all that organic matter just sits there, breaking down and releasing methane and carbon dioxide, as well as small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, ammonia, sulfides, hydrogen and various other gases.

How much methane do landfills emit?

Landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S. They accounted for approximately 15.1 percent of these emissions in 2019.

That’s equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gases produced by 21.6 million cars in one year.

Researchers estimate methane accounts for one-quarter of the warming that’s happened in the past 150 years. (Need a refresher on how the greenhouse effect works? Brush up in our guide to climate change eBook.)

How can we save waste from landfills?

Our first line of attack in limiting what ends up in a landfill should be reducing what we buy and use, and reusing and recycling whatever we can. We can take a more climate-friendly approach to shopping, and look after what we have so it lasts longer.

Vegetables and other perishables being composted in a green bin
Photo by joerngebhardt68 on Shutterstock

1. Use less in the journey to zero-waste

Get inspired by the zero-wasters who avoid excess packaging and single-use items. Clothes and household items we no longer need can be passed down to friends, donated to charities or schools, or repurposed into other items.

2. Recycle things you can't use anymore

Paper, metal and glass can be recycled to become new items (fun fact: we can recycle aluminum over and over again, forever), and food and yard waste can be turned into rich compost to enrich our soils and ecosystems.

3. Cut down on leftover and wasted food

Food waste in particular is a huge opportunity to reduce what goes into the landfill (and save money, too!). That’s where massive shopping expeditions should make way for calculated, well-planned choices – more thoughtful purchasing and less bulk-buying (especially if you live alone).

Planning weekly menus — and sticking to them — can help cut back on the number of wilted veggies sitting in the crisper at the end of the week. Checking out the fridge before leaving for the supermarket can also reduce duplication and ensure we’re buying only what we need.

A little creativity can transform leftover vegetables into new meals (try our guide to making soup from just about anything), while overripe fruit can be frozen so it can be used later on.

24% of all household, commercial and institutional waste that ends up in landfills is made of biodegradable materials.

4. Compost your garden waste

The same goes for those leaves, grass clippings and weeds accumulated during the backyard clean-up. Twenty-four percent of all household, commercial and institutional waste that ends up in landfills is made of biodegradable materials.

How can landfills become more environmentally-friendly?

No matter how much we reduce, there will still be some items ending up in landfills, but it’s actually possible to capture methane from landfills to convert into fuel and power nearby industries.

An excavator claw grabbing trash at an industrial landfill
Photo by zlikovec on Shutterstock

Meet the landfills that are going green

Luckily, landfill operators are also embarking on exciting green initiatives. A number of firms, for instance, are actually capturing methane from landfills to clean, convert into fuel and power nearby industries. In fact, the EPA mandates that some larger landfill operators collect methane via gas collection systems.

This methane can also be compressed to make natural gas or cooled to make liquefied natural gas to power vehicles. Case in point: Waste Management (WM), a progressive primary landfill firm, captures more than half of the landfill gas generated at its facilities and uses it to power homes, businesses and trucks.

The company also cleans the gas and allows it to enter a natural gas pipeline, ensuring that the methane it generates becomes part of the larger gas supply.

Waste diversion and management is so important in combating the climate crisis, many carbon offset projects have been created to support and fund it. (Find out more in our guide to carbon offsetting.)

The future of waste management and landfill

While some waste management firms are developing innovative ways to capture and redirect methane, there’s still work to be done. Existing regulations under the Clean Air Act require landfills of a certain size to install and operate a gas collection and control system. But more stringent guidelines on methane emissions from landfills are needed.

And ultimately, it comes down to how much we send to landfills in the first place. After all, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as “away.”

The trash that’s so conveniently removed from the end of our driveways or the bottom of our garbage chutes will ultimately affect the air we breathe and the water we drink, not to mention the climate.

As for that torn T-shirt, perhaps it can find a new life as cleaning rags — or a stylish upcycled rug.

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Anna Sharratt
Written By
Anna Sharratt

Anna Sharratt is a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail and the National Post and has written for Forbes, and Best Health, among others. She enjoys hiking and running 10Ks when she’s not taking her kids to soccer practice or cheering on her marathon-running husband.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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