Chapter 2: Everything You Need To Know About Landfills
We’re creating more and more junk, but we’re running out of places to put it.
As society advanced, we started to manufacture more products to make our lives easier. But this also created more junk, and that junk needed a new home. Thus the landfill was born as a final resting place for everyone’s discarded junk.
Landfills aren’t a modern creation. We’ve been dealing with junk since the early days of civilization. Let’s dive into a brief history of landfills, how people use and maintain them, and why they can't hold everyone’s junk.
The first recorded landfill belongs to the Greeks. They passed a law early on that no one could throw junk into the streets. Citizens would send all junk at least a mile away from Athens instead. This would prevent bad smells and infectious diseases from affecting city life.
As people spread and civilization grew, there was a need for better junk removal tactics. Colonists in 1710 Virginia dug holes to bury all their junk, including discarded armor. But the colonies weren’t hit the hardest by junk — it was the growing cities that found their junk burdensome.
Metropolitan areas also found better ways to dispose of their junk. London had the first waste collection service in the 18th century. They collected coal ash and repurposed it into bricks. It was the first instance of a "zero waste" policy.
Yet people got sloppy as modern city life grew. Cities neglected the need for efficient junk removal services at a time when people were creating more junk than ever before. City dwellers simply tossed their junk into the street as they needed to. New Yorkers started dumping into the East River, creating contaminated water that spread diseases like cholera and dysentery. It led to New York City's Metropolitan Board of Health declaring a war on garbage in 1866.
The first incinerator was actually created in 1874 in Nottingham, UK. It wasn’t until 1885 that America built the nation's first garbage incinerator on Governors Island, New York. But this wasn’t the end of the junk problem.
Junk continued to propagate for many years. In 1894, there were barges full of garbage floating down the Potomac River. New York City was still dumping garbage into the Atlantic as late as 1933. Shortly thereafter, George Roby Dempster introduced the Dempster Dumpster in 1935 to help with junk. But true junk removal took a long time to really catch on.
We create more products as society consumes more stuff. This means we’re creating more junk in the process because many people don’t donate or recycle. It’s resulted in a need for more landfills.
Landfills are the most common tool we have to deal with junk disposal. Landfills work like this:
- Junk gets dropped off.
- Machinery compacts the junk on a daily basis. Landfill workers add a layer of soil or tarps over the top to prevent it from spreading.
- The junk and waste decomposes over time, depending on the material it consists of. Some of the materials we throw away aren’t biodegradable, and will be in the landfill for lifetimes.
- When a landfill is full, workers add an approved cover over the top. This is typically a combination of soil, clay, and a synthetic liner.
- Crews monitor the landfill for 30 years until it is safe for reuse.
A lot of people realized that landfills weren’t actually good for the environment. Burying junk in the ground and covering it over with dirt doesn't make these things go away. Many of the items that they threw away also aren’t biodegradable, and were furthermore harmful to the environment.
If landfills were going to continue business as usual, they had new priorities to consider, such as:
- Proximity to water
- Local ecosystems and habitats
- Neighborhoods and communities
Today’s newer landfills take the environment into consideration through construction methods. Current landfills are constructed in many layers to reduce their environmental impact.
Photo Credit: EPA
When a landfill is full, the cross-section will look like this, from bottom to top:
- Clay: a compact layer that acts as a foundation and barrier. It prevents gas and leachate, a mixture of landfill secretion and water, from getting into the surrounding soil. It’s a byproduct of most landfills and can be hazardous if it seeps out.
- Geomembrane: a plastic liner that traps odors and excess gas created by the landfill. It also limits the amount of water that enters the landfill. This prevents the production of leachate.
- Drainage collection system: an underground system of pipes with holes, surrounded in gravel. This pipe system collects the leachate, pumping it to a waste management facility.
- Collection layer: sand, gravel, or a thick mesh separates the solids from the leachate. This layer acts as a filter before the leachate gets to the drainage system.
- Waste: this gets compacted daily, and workers add a final layer of soil on top of the junk.
- More clay: used to compact the junk below it and to keep moisture out.
- Mesh cover: this plastic layer prevents extra moisture from seeping in. It also prevents odors and gases from leaking out.
- Soil: used over the top to supplement vegetation. It also adds an extra layer for moisture control.
- Methane gas pipes: compacted junk creates methane gas over time. This gas can be lethal (and even explosive) if not carefully monitored. All current landfills have pipes that either expel the gas or turn it into energy.
These new designs for landfills are far more environmentally conscious than their predecessors. But landfills still create problems no matter how carefully constructed they are.
Although landfills have come a long way from the days of the Greeks, they still have many downsides. These are the biggest problems caused by landfills:
- Greenhouse gases: landfills produce gases composed of 90-98 percent methane and carbon dioxide. Both of these contribute to the breakdown of the ozone layer.
- Groundwater contamination: new landfill construction methods try to keep leachate from affecting groundwater. But their protective layers aren’t enough. Metals and chemicals still seep into the surrounding soil and contaminate groundwater.
- Wildlife disruption: as more land gets used up for landfills, it encroaches on surrounding habitats. Animals will seek (likely contaminated) food and water in these landfills leading to their sickness or death.
There are better options than landfills. We don’t have to rely on them as the end-all option for our junk. Here are some alternatives to throwing away your junk and contributing to the landfill problem:
- Donate. Many local charities and donation centers will take almost any item that’s in good shape. Check out Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and local homeless shelters. Also consider partnering with larger companies who act sustainably. For instance, we recently partnered up with Casper Mattress and Habitat for Humanity in NYC to help with mattress donating, recycling, and reselling.
- Resell. Craigslist, OfferUp, and Facebook Marketplace are online services for selling unwanted items. It’s better to give something a new home than to fill up the landfill. There’s also a feeling of social good tied to selling an item as opposed to discarding it.
- Recycle. Beyond paper, plastic, and glass, there are many different types of items to recycle. You can bring e-waste (like computers and cell phones) to recycling centers or local drives in your community. You can also recycle more practical materials (like shelving and metal) at special facilities or drop-off centers.
- Upcycle or repurpose. There are hundreds of different ways to reuse some of the most common items we throw away. Use toilet paper rolls to organize cords, make a lamp out of wine bottles), use plastic containers as pots for growing plants. You can also bring new life to old furniture by refinishing it to give it a whole new look. We’ve accomplished this with our Remix Market store, a refinishing shop established for the purpose of upcycling furniture and other household items.
These options require extra time, care, and effort, but they’re safer and more eco-friendly than taking the easy way out and dumping in a landfill. It’s tougher to recycle and repurpose, but the benefits outweigh the time, effort, and cost on our part. China’s recent ban on most recyclables has made it even tougher, but we’re sticking to our goal of achieving a more eco-friendly future for junk removal.
If everyone embraces donating, recycling, and repurposing, we can reduce the need for landfills. Only then will we find new homes for items and reduce our junk output.
In the next chapter, we’ll cover what happens to different types of materials in a landfill and the way these items affect the environment.