Landfills are currently the go-to approach for disposing of the majority of our waste, but these mountains of trash do have a negative ecological impact.
Landfills are bad because they contribute to pollution, the rise of greenhouse gases, resource contamination, and they have a poor aesthetic. In addition, they are known for negatively impacting human health and will take thousands of years to biodegrade.
These days, we have a pretty sophisticated system for +disposing of our waste. Most households have multi colored trash bins that enable people to manage their waste better by throwing their trash away responsibly. The rise of sustainable living in the world has only encouraged better waste management in our society - with more and more people wanting to do their part to make our planet cleaner and greener. However, the truth is that a lot of our trash still ends up in landfills - either due to mismanagement or a lack of due diligence by consumers, which results in a lot of negative repercussions on our environment and our society as a whole. To help you understand more about why landfills are bad, we are going to examine this topic in more detail.
After decades of working with the Environmental Protection Agency, I have had an extensive amount of experience optimizing waste management solutions. My experience has shown me that no matter how well maintained and organized a landfill is, it still has a lot of negative impacts on the environment.
Landfills tend to get a bad rap - and for good reason! These mountainous piles of waste have been building up and getting larger, more toxic, and more challenging to manage in recent years. A lot of this is due to the type of waste that we dispose of but also the amount of it. Human populations have been rising globally at a rampant pace, which is becoming harder and harder to keep up with. This has resulted in the amount of waste that we produce increasing exponentially, which puts more strain on our environment.
The issue of dealing with people’s waste has been a human problem for thousands of years, which is why we have always found a systematic solution to cope with the amount of trash that we create. However, this issue is being exacerbated by modern-day consumerism and industrialization. This global problem is forcing us to, once again, adapt and solve the issue of human waste, which is currently pushing our landfills to their limits.
A major obstacle with the waste that enters our landfills today is that so much of our trash simply does not break down the way that it did before. The contents of our waste in the past were primarily made of materials that were naturally occurring and could easily decompose. Today, a lot of our waste takes thousands of years to break down and become one with the Earth again, which results in landfills becoming enormous man-made mountains that will be an eyesore for centuries.
The sad truth is that no matter how bad landfills are, they will always be necessary in some way shape, or form. They do serve a purpose to society and, if managed correctly, the amount of harm that they cause could be seriously mitigated. Unfortunately, we have not yet found a way to successfully cope with the negative impacts of landfills, which is why they are causing so many issues within our environment. Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways in which landfills are bad.
One of the biggest issues that we are faced with when it comes to dealing with our landfills is the enormous amount of pollution that they contribute to. It is easy to think that waste has been properly managed once it has arrived at a landfill. However, in actuality, trash does not always stay in a landfill once it is unloaded. Some of this trash ends up seeping out and making its way into our environment.
Here in the United States, we have a relatively sophisticated system for our landfills, which aims to dispose of trash properly and holds waste management organizations accountable for environmental issues. While this tends to be the case in many western countries, developing nations struggle with managing their landfills properly, which results in a lot of waste spilling out into our oceans, land resources, and even the air.
Once this sort of pollution takes place, it ends up having a lot of negative repercussions on global ecosystems and the health of human beings. The tricky thing with pollution caused by landfills is that there are numerous factors at play, which make tackling this issue so challenging. Here are some examples of how landfills contribute to pollution.
One of the biggest issues with landfills these days is the amount of air pollution that they cause. The majority of this air pollution is a result of the biodegradable waste that ends up in our landfills. Waste that can break down relatively quickly will decompose and then begin emitting harmful gases such as methane and carbon dioxide into our air.
This sort of air pollution is especially problematic right now given that we are currently in the middle of trying to adapt to the climate crisis. It goes without saying that the biggest environmental issue that we are faced with today is climate change, which has resulted in nations around the globe trying to cope with this planetary phenomenon.
This has put a lot of attention on air pollution contributors such as our landfills, which are pumping out tons of harmful gases into our atmosphere. Since landfills are generating large quantities of methane specifically, they are having a very damaging effect on air pollution. Methane absorbs much more heat than carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which only worsens its effects on climate change.
In addition, these harmful greenhouse gases can also negatively impact the health of people living in communities that are located near landfills. When gases such as methane are breathed in by humans, it deprives people of having adequate oxygen intake. It is often the case that residences are cheaper when they are near a landfill, which results in lower-income households experiencing the worse effects of the air pollution caused by landfills.
One of our most valuable natural resources is our soil, which can be extremely fragile when put into adverse conditions. This is becoming a bigger issue with a lot of the waste that we currently dispose of in our landfills, as industrial and corporate trash makes up a huge portion of the total waste.
These massive organizations do not only dispose of waste that contributes to air pollution but land degradation as well, which pollutes our soil. A lot of industrial waste is made out of chemicals and harmful materials, which need to be properly treated and handled in order for them to be safely disposed of.
However, a lot of industrial organizations and corporate giants prefer not to treat their waste, as this can be more costly for their company. This results in tons of toxic waste being dumped into our landfills, which then seeps into the soil within the area. This can have a lot of damaging effects on future food production for the whole region, as these toxic chemicals not only affect the soil directly beneath the landfill but also the entire surrounding area.
A resource that we greatly take for granted is our water and, in particular, our freshwater. The majority of the water on our planet is in the ocean - with only about 3% of our planet’s water being fresh and just about 1% of it being accessible to us, which is why it is absolutely essential that we take care of the limited amount of freshwater that we actually have.
Unfortunately, the pollution of our freshwater resources is becoming an ever-increasing issue and landfills are only adding to this problem. Much like with the issues of toxic chemicals from landfills entering our soil, these chemicals also make their way into our freshwater resources.
We have found that freshwater channels such as rivers, lakes, and streams that are located near a landfill are often subject to harmful toxins and contamination. These freshwater resources are then often completely unusable.
This can be especially problematic when a freshwater channel is a primary resource for drinking water for a community. If this sort of occurrence is not caught early enough, then it could potentially jeopardize the drinking water of an entire region.
Wildlife & Habitat
It is very common for landfills to be located in places that were once beautiful natural areas. Given that most people prefer not to live within the vicinity of a landfill, local governments and private organizations will tend to place these mountains of waste away from urban areas.
This results in large natural landscapes needing to be converted for waste disposal. If a landfill is placed somewhere that is desolate and away from areas with a lot of wildlife, then the negative effects are minimized. However, this is not often the case, as landfills are commonly located in forests and other natural areas that are rich with plant and animal species.
To establish these massive landfills, organizations need to create a large enough space for the operation to take place. This results in huge areas of land that are essential habitats for countless species needing to be cleared away for our waste. Given that species extinction is an ongoing global issue, landfills are only contributing to this issue further.
It is estimated that an average landfill is more than 500 acres in size and given that almost 2 million acres of United States soil have been allocated for landfills, we have already done some major destruction to our vital natural areas.
In addition, landfills negatively impact these plant and animal species through pollution. As mentioned above, pollution from landfills tends to affect the health of the entire area that surrounds it. It is very common to find that the pollution that enters nearby freshwater channels ends up negatively impacting the health of species that drink this water regularly. Furthermore, this type of pollution has also been known to affect the populations of fish species, which at times results in entire ecosystems becoming destroyed.
There are a lot of reasons why people choose not to live near a landfill - with the biggest being how it could potentially affect their health. We have found that some people that live near landfills may experience health issues such as increased rates of cancer and, in some cases, birth defects.
There are a number of different ways that this occurs with one of the most common being the harmful effects of pollution. Poor air quality has been linked with respiratory illnesses and people that have to live near a landfill or even work in one, experience this firsthand. This problem is exacerbated even further in developing countries. Nations that are economically unstable tend to not have long-term solutions for their massive landfills, which leads some countries to resort to burning their trash. This approach has very damaging effects on people’s respiratory health and creates horrible air quality for urban communities.
In addition, one of the most destructive ways for landfills to affect human health is if waste ends up contaminating the drinking water for a community. If this sort of contamination is caught early, then measures can be taken to treat the water to prevent harm from being done to the residents of that area. However, this is not always the case.
There have been reports of waste mismanagement that resulted in communities drinking contaminated water for years, which are when some of the most serious health risks come into play. This can be especially alarming if the waste that is being disposed of is toxic/chemical waste.
Furthermore, landfills are often breeding grounds for pests such as rats. When natural areas are cleared away and replaced with trash, disease-carrying pests will generally become abundant in the area. Rats, in particular, are known for carrying diseases such as salmonella, hantavirus, leptospirosis, and other dangerous diseases, which can easily spread into nearby communities. These diseases can be spread to humans when they come into direct content with disease-carrying rodents or through droppings that may be left in people’s homes.
Poor Aesthetic & Odor
The bottom line is that landfills are not nice to look at. These mountainous piles of waste are a major eyesore for anyone who sees them and nobody has to deal with it more than the people of the community where they are located.
Landfills, regardless of their size, end up destroying the aesthetic of communities, which then impacts people’s quality of life. The poor aesthetic that landfills create will always drive the cost of land in the area to go down. This can have a negative economic effect on a community and can result in financial instability.
With that being said, landfills also create a poor aesthetic when they are located in rural areas as well. As mentioned above, natural areas are often flattened in order to make room for landfills. We have seen beautiful landscapes filled with nature and biodiversity transform into literal wastelands. This can be heartbreaking for not only the species that live in this natural area but also for the people that venture out to enjoy the outdoors.
In addition, if you have ever been even remotely close to a landfill, you will know firsthand that they stink! Landfills can make the air quality worse for people’s health but also for the scent of an entire community.
A huge portion of the waste that ends up in our landfills is not biodegradable. Within the last century or so, we have transitioned to using a lot of single-use products and have become highly dependent on plastics. Any waste product made of plastic that ends up in a landfill will take thousands of years to break down, which means that landfills are not going anywhere anytime soon.
This problem is exacerbated by consumers and industries who do not dispose of their recyclable materials properly. So much of the waste that ends up in a landfill could have been recycled, reused, or repurposed.
In recent years, we have begun using compostable single-use products such as wooden utensils and paper straws, but many consumers and industries are slow to transition to this trend, which results in more non-biodegradable waste products piling up in our landfills.
About THE AUTHOR
James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.Read More About James Parker