How Landfill sites affect the environment.
We have all been guilty of throwing things in the rubbish and hoping for the best. It’s confusing. Is it going in the right bin? Which paper or plastic can be recycled? What if they have scraps of last nights pizza on them? What are we supposed to do with batteries? Garden scraps? Can’s? Bottle tops? The list of questions goes on … right?
Not to mention the mountain of packaging detritus and takeaway containers we now collect, all designed to make our lives simpler, but doom our environment to a living hell.
So … what happen’s to all this rubbish once our bin is emptied? Where does it all go?
1. How much rubbish do we really produce, and what actually is it?
Currently, Australia’s population sits at roughly 24 million, with statistics revealing that each person on average creates 2 tonnes of waste per year.
Just to put that in perspective, imagine 4000 pairs of jeans, 13,000 pizza boxes, 32,000 coffee cups, or 133,000 cans of red bull.
The three main sources of rubbish are:
• Household: roughly 30%. This comprises textiles, organic matter, packaging and plastics, miscellaneous items and e-waste. The household waste contains 60% organic matter, of which 40% is food, and 20% is garden cuttings.
• Commercial & Industrial: 30%
• Construction & Demolition: 40% ( the good news is, over half of this is recycled due to attractive levies which make it cheaper to recycle.
In fact, our production of waste is outstripping our population growth. Between 1996 and 2015, our population rose by 28%, while our creation of waste increased a whopping 170%.
One reason for this is, in Australia, we love buying clothes, coming 2nd on the list of the largest consumers of textiles in the world, with each person buying on average 27kg of new clothes a year.
Unfortunately, a lot of this clothing is fast fashion. Low cost, low-quality clothing, with what the industry refers to as “built-in obsolescence”. Garments produced in a very short period of time, utilizing cheap raw materials, designed with a very limited fashion lifecycle.
Retailers have trained consumers to expect to dispose of their fashion a regular basis, to make way for the latest looks. As one industry expert recently noted, value used to mean price and quality, now consumers commonly refer to value as a bargain. Now research tells us, that 6000kg of clothing and textiles is dumped in Australia every 10 minutes!!!
In fairness, a lot of us send our unwanted clothes to charity. Of the estimated $5 billion we spend on fashion each year, 22 tonnes end up at the doors of charities. The only issue is, only about 15% of these donations are able to be resold. The predominately cheap quality of the garments means both their usefulness and appeal are limited, as is their lifecycle. Thus the remaining 85% where possible are used as industrial rags, sent off to developing nations, but most ends up in Landfill.
2. What are landfills, and where are Landfill sites located?
Modern landfills are usually located in abandoned quarries. Construction focusses on containing pollutants and toxins, thus the walls are lined in clay, or in some cases plastic liners. This ensures toxic chemicals, or the polluting bi-products of the anaerobic process of waste breaking down, are prevented from seeping into the soil, or groundwater tables.
Most commonly Landfills are clustered around major cities. The only issue is, we don’t actually know how many are in existence, as these operations are not required to be registered and licensed by the EPA if they are serving a population of fewer than 5000 people. This means that currently, we have 600 registered landfills in operation around Australia, but anywhere up to 2000 smaller run entities who currently are not monitored for their environmental performance by the EPA. It is then up to local councils to oversee these smaller enterprises. Given the environmental hazard, this process can cause, this is an alarming situation.
3. Why is Landfill bad for the environment?
Basically, there are three main problems with landfills, which we need to be concerned about.
• Toxins. A lot of the things we throw in the bin contain hazardous chemicals. A particular culprit is e-waste, old electronic items, and batteries, which can contain anything from mercury, arsenic, cadmium, PVC, solvents, and lead. The issue is, they can leach into the soils and ultimately pollute ground waters.
• Leachate. A contaminant, formed when liquid produced as waste breaks down mixes with water running through the waste, creating a highly toxic run-off, which unless captured, can pollute our soils and underground water tables.
• Greenhouse Gases. How are landfill gases produced and are they harmful? Organic materials such as our food scraps and garden waste, breakdown beautifully when left to compost. Unfortunately, Landfill is not the right environment. All waste dumped in landfill is covered in soil and compacted by heavy machinery, a process which removes oxygen. The resulting process is an anaerobic one, a process by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. The bi-product of this is methane gas, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide.
Why is this important?
Climate scientists have now proven, without doubt, increasing levels of Carbon Dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere are causing Global Warming.
The other issue is, that apart from our organic matter, a lot of what is going into the rubbish is not actually immediately bio-degradable.
The list below gives some idea of how long these items will take to be fully decomposed.
• Most fast fashion is made from cheap synthetic fabrics such as nylon, acrylic, and polyesters, which will take anywhere unto 200 years to decompose.
• A milk carton - 5 years
• a plastic bag - 10-20 years
• a tin can - 100 years
• styrofoam - never
• a cigarette butt - 10 -12 years
• a disposable nappy - 75 years
• a beer can 200 - 500 years
4. What is E-Waste?
E-waste stands for electronic waste. It covers all electronic products, from vacuum cleaners to mobile phones and computers to copiers. As technology advances at such a lightning speed, technology products increasingly become obsolete and outdated. Unfortunately, most of them end up in wheelie bins.
Australia lags behind the western world in recycling our e-waste, currently, fewer than 1% of TV’s and 10% of computers are effectively recycled.
The issue here is both the toxic pollutants such as mercury, lead, and arsenic which are commonly used in these appliances, but also the precious metals such as gold, indium, palladium, finite minerals which could be captured and re-used.
5. How can Landfill be used for energy?
Interestingly some of the EU countries are leading the way regarding waste to fuel strategies, as they believe it to be an important strategy for transitioning to a zero landfill future.
Non-recyclable papers, plastics, wood waste, and textiles, are converted into briquettes and fuel pellets through a variety of processes such as drying, shedding, and compressing techniques.
These pellets are used to generate electricity, replacing coal and fossil fuels, and with a smaller carbon footprint. Sweden has been called out as an industry leader, with only 4% of waste going to landfill! They are able to either recycle or convert to fuel a whopping 96% of their waste, powering both their electricity and heating. This strategy has proved so successful, they now charge their neighbors to dispose of their rubbish, thus it provides both an income and a power source. Truly inspiring.
So in summary, it seems our strategy of relying on landfill is antiquated, outdated, and I fear mismanaged. If 2000 of our sites are under the radar of the EPA, then how can we be sure toxic gases and leachate are being responsibly managed. If most of the products going to landfill require 20 - 200 years to decompose, then landfill sites have a finite lifespan, and we need to be transitioning to a better strategy now. Surely turning the waste we are stockpiling into energy to drive electricity is a better strategy than digging up more coal?
According to industry experts, the rise in fast fashion in Australia has meant 6000 kg's of clothing is dumped in landfill every ten minutes. So how often have you thrown odd socks in the bin? A recent study showed Brits lose an average of 1.3 socks a month, that's 1264 socks over an average lifetime or a staggering 84 million socks a month just in the UK if they are to be believed!
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