Sustainability with Landfilling

When considering landfills from a sustainability perspective, often the most difficult thing is to step back from the negative connotations of landfills. Too often, sustainability managers get caught in the trend of “zero landfill” because it is great marketing and it sounds like it would be more environmental. We must overcome the negative perception of landfills so we can evaluate them objectively.

 The truth is always in the facts. Landfills are an important part of any sustainability strategy. Most all of the waste worldwide goes into landfills. Landfills can be the most environmentally and economically beneficial disposal options for certain items. Technology has completely changed landfills; they are not the same as they were prior to the 1980’s. And landfills are an important part of many municipal green energy initiatives.

The design and operation of landfills has completely changed over the past few decades. Landfills are now actively managed to avoid leachate absorption into the surrounding soil, to avoid air emissions and they are a valuable and consistent source of renewable energy. Modern landfills are by far the most inexpensive method to dispose of materials and they allow a means to provide economic and environmental value through the conversion of landfill gas to energy.

 There is no doubt that most all plastics are disposed of in landfills. Even after 40 years of efforts to divert plastics from landfills, we still landfill over 90% of plastics. Many companies’ products and packaging will have closer to 100% landfill disposal. History has shown that we will continue to landfill plastics for a very long time and attempts to divert plastics from landfills usually causes more damage to the environment and economy than any benefit it may provide. Because of this, we must understand how to create sustainability with landfilling of plastics.

 Plastics in the landfill should biodegrade during the managed life of the landfill, 2-50 years. When compostable plastics enter a landfill many will biodegrade too rapidly and the methane is released into the atmosphere and most traditional plastics biodegrade over hundreds of years meaning, again, the methane goes into the atmosphere. We must use plastics that biodegrade during the 2-50 year managed time of a landfill so the methane can be managed, collected and converted to clean energy. Once collected, the methane provides energy, fuel, and reduces the methane’s global warming effects.

Ultimately, we cannot disregard landfilling because plastics are, and will continue to be, discarded into landfills. Instead, we must design plastics that provide value in the landfill. In this way, we can create sustainability platforms that are more realistic and beneficial.

For more details, check out the Sustainability Managers Complete Guide to Plastics: