I’ve long wondered what the best method of eradicating our garbage is. Aside from recycling which is the overwhelming best method.
So, in this article, I’m going to discuss the main differences between landfill vs incineration and help us all understand the advantages of one over the other – if any, as well as the pros and cons and the best alternatives!
First, though, let me give you a quick takeaway answer, then I’ll go through more of the points beyond that…
Landfill vs Incineration? The two common methods used for disposing of all varieties of waste are Landfill or Incineration. Both methods have strict governance and certification requirements, and some materials must be designated for particular disposal methods. Both methods have potential effects on the locale and climate.
There are over 250 million tons of waste that are disposed of each year in the U.S. alone. There is likely to be an equivalent amount to deal with each year in Europe, and those amounts don’t include the rest of the world either.
There are over 250 million tons of waste that are
disposed of each year in the U.S alone
Currently, other than recycling, we use landfill or incineration as our most commonly used means of disposing of this waste. So the question is; has society and governments yet come to understand by this point which one is better? Let’s look a little deeper into this subject to understand more…
Both the “bury or burn” strategies have consequences for our environment, both in the land and the air. So we’re going to look at both methods first …so we can understand the processes of each.
This method largely keeps the waste as a solid mass. They’re hidden beneath several layers of earth… mainly because decaying material isn’t something our society wants to have in large piles above ground… understandably so, but also because decaying waste can attract vermin, become an eyesore, and be distributed around the landscape by winds and rain flowing to rivers.
Areas for solid waste in the US are called Municipal Solid Waste Land Fills According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2009, there were approximately 1,908 MSWLFs in the continental United States.
All the garbage disposed at MSWLF sites, and the sites themselves must fulfil specific criteria before it can become a landfill location…
- Location – Landfills must be built in suitable geological areas away from faults, wetlands, flood plains or other restricted areas.
- Liners requirements – Landfills must be lined, with a flexible geo-membrane, over at least two feet of compacted clay soil lining both the bottom and sides of the landfill site. This protects groundwater and the soil beneath the site from leachate – more on ‘Leachate’ shortly.
- Leachate collection and removal systems – suitable systems that on top of the composite liner that remove leachate from the landfill for treatment and disposal.
- Responsible operating practices – include compacting and covering waste frequently with several inches of additional soil layers.
Standard and responsible operating procedures and best practices ensure that each landfill site will produce minimal odour, as well as control litter, insect infestations, and rodent populations. In turn, providing protection to public health – and as far as possible – the environment.
Once a Landfill has been filled to its capacity, it must then be covered and have provision made for long term care of the filled area. Both provisions for corrective action where necessary and finance provisions are made available by the government to ensure it’s long term aftercare.
Older landfills vs modern landfills
Historically, landfills used to be no more than a large hole dug into the ground, with fewer provisions for its effects on the environment.
Modern-day landfills must cover far more stringent criteria. One of those criteria, and of extreme importance is the impermeable membrane to ensure that landfills are essentially containers for waste disposal.
Despite this more stringent criteria, even modern landfill sites have been known to leak into the environment, given their size, it’s difficult to contain such waste completely on any mass scale.
Particularly older landfill sites are prone to producing leachate. Leachate is a toxic liquid, this toxic liquid is produced as rainwater works its way through a landfill site, collecting both organic and inorganic materials such as microbes, particles, and harmful bacteria that can be toxic to humans and yet finds its way through to the water table.
These particles and toxins can include materials like pesticide residue, heavy metals particles, micro-plastics, and even solvents that combine with the water. This water then eventually makes its way into municipal drinking water (up to 40%) and rural drinking water (up to 90%).
Harmful gases are released from landfill sites, so much so that vertical drainage pipes are often inserted at specific points to aid the release of gas. These dangerous gases released from decaying materials add to the increase in air pollution. In fact, studies have shown that illnesses such as diabetes and lung disorders demonstrate a definite rise the closer you live to a landfill site.
There are certain solid wastes that are better to burn and destroy than to commit to landfill. One such example is waste from health-care facilities. The four main waste components that are commonly incinerated are:-
- Municipal Solid Waste
- Hazardous Waste Solids
- Hazardous Waste Liquids
- Medical Waste
Materials within these waste categories can fall into what the EPA segments as 4 main categories of materials. None of which would be suitable for landfills.
- Ignitability – or flammable
- Corrosivity – prone to rust or decompose
- Reactivity – potentially explosive
- Toxicity – potentially poisonous
Incinerator ash is exported to other states to be used as landfill cover, contributing to the landfill leachate that seeps into the water supply.
Like landfills, the waste that is sent for incineration is governed by criteria that it must meet in order to be a certified legitimate practice. The chart below demonstrates the proper setup and process of an incineration plant.
Environmental regulations were almost non-existent up to the 1980s. Since then, there is now extensive monitoring of the key incineration processes and conditions.
These conditions include rates of waste fed into the incinerators; feed rates of ash, chlorine, and toxic metals. Combustion temperatures; gas velocity and air-pollution levels, as well as the measurement of gas emission concentrations such as O2, CO, hydrocarbons, and opacity.
Toxic gas & particulates
We know from the smog-filled days of the industrial revolution that burning waste emits gases that are toxic, as well as particulates that can fall back to land and be breathed in by the population, which can in turn increase lung disorders and other diseases. These emissions can include heavy metal particles, as well as contaminates such as…
- Sulphuric acid
- Hydrogen chloride
- Dioxin (poisonous gas)
These particles and gases are not confined to the area of burning, these gases can be carried for hundreds of miles around – sometimes thousands of miles on climatic wind currents to land and infect rural and wildlife areas as well as other suburbs. These gases can contribute hugely to pollution and the greenhouse gas effect.
Incineration practices produce their own kind of waste – or by-product, namely ash. Much of the ash produced by incinerators is actually moved to landfill sites and deposited as a covering surface.
This can exacerbate the problem of leachates in rainwater and requires further careful monitoring.
Alternatives and solutions
Short of firing our waste into space, or creating some more science fiction based method, we are really only left with these two main choices.
But, we can, and should certainly try to tackle the source of the problem. While we’re looking for ways to improve the disposal of waste, we should be focusing our efforts on vastly reducing the amount of waste we send to either of these facilities.
With the advent of increased recycling and re-purposing practices, we have made gains, yet in the United States, almost 5lb (2.3kgs) worth of waste is still disposed of per person per day. This is a vast amount of waste that could be reduced still further.
As our municipal landfill and incinerators area already stretched, and become more stretched in the future to cope with the amount of waste that we send there, there will no doubt need to be enforced changes in the future to help alleviate the problem.
So what can you do?
Here’s a brief list of the lower-level changes that you can make to help ease our waste management
- Purchase longer life products
- Reduce your spending on non-essential products
- Choose products with minimal packaging
- Choose products with biodegradable packaging
- Reuse or re-purpose items where possible
- Recycle properly and responsibly
- Promote recycling in your locale
- Responsibly dispose of products such as batteries, electronics. Computers, appliances, and TVs
These might all seem like small practices, but small practices with each and every one of us produces large scale changes.
I’m Tonny Rutakirwa, and my foundation is now working towards a better future for our planet. Donations make a huge difference to our work. With donations, we can understand the causes and effects through studies and with science. The Rutakirwa Foundation was set up with this exact approach in mind.
I’m using my platform to lend my voice to the need for change. So here’s a donation link for those who can join me in the cause and donate to our supported charitable causes!
Given the variety of types of waste we need to dispose of, it’s clear that both these methods have their place in our society …at least for the moment. Each comes with its own set of downsides – and it seems the only upside – or benefit – is that we don’t have to see our waste.
Perhaps if we did have to see how much waste we accrue, there would be a much faster rate of positive change.
Till next month,
I remain truly yours,
Serving since 28th December 2008.