Zero Waste: The Landfill in the Sky

Landfills are the out-of-sight, out-of-mind, not-in-my-neighborhood necessities, a fact of life not only here in the U.S. but globally as well. How landfills impact the Earth’s atmosphere is an often mentioned problem amongst some of the brightest sustainable thinkers. And rightly so. The focus on what goes in impacts what leaks out. And yes, the seepage of methane gas is incredibly problematic.

Where does this gas come from? Organic waste.

While organic waste recovery has improved in the U.S., we still have a long way to go to achieve zero in this category of waste. Why? Why haven’t we achieved more to stop this material from entering the landfill? If removing the source of methane gas is the solution to a methane gas problem, why have we not made greater advances?

There’s Money in Methane

The EPA can only guess at the number of landfills diverting methane gases from the air we breath. They think the capture rate might be as high as 35% of all past and current landfills. Even more alarming is the overestimation of the actual size of the capture of methane Active landfills seem to provide lower capture rates compared to capped and retired landfills.

What We Know

Each and every sustainability professional worth her/his credentials is focused on numerous aspects of landfill waste – what goes in and what can be diverted. And each of those efforts will have an impact on current landfill health. However, it is what we don’t see that will create the longest term damage.

For the sake of discussion, let’s discuss a few facts.

  1. We create waste. We create waste at the beginning of a product’s lifecycle, waste when we move it from one place to another and ultimately this waste becomes a new issue once whatever we have created no longer is useful. This problem will not go away.
  2. We are beginning to think about waste – differently. There are numerous companies around the world engaging in design thinking and applying those thoughts to the circular economy, an economy that is attempting to move companies and countries away from the linear approach to waste handling – the make, use, dispose. This will require design thinking at every level of the products life and full engagement of everyone in the process chain.
  3. Desirability is the center of the design change and ultimately help manipulate the process at every point in the circular economy. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO has identified this evolution in thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” It starts with people.
  4. Business still has a long way to go. It is not easy tying consumer desirability (the reason a product or service is created), the technological feasibility (have we come far enough to attempt to change the previously linear approach), the business viability (will this be profitable enough to pursue) and how will this mesh into some sort of environmentally sustainable process that is worth boasting about. Business needs to be able to sell the idea to shareholders and stakeholders.
  5. The cost of not doing what needs to be done, despite numerous processes currently available has yet to be fully determined. And that will always present a roadblock when deciding who is going to pay is discussed. Gathering the facts in one place – facts everyone can agree on – is only part of the problem. Simply suggesting it will be expensive is not a good way to project cost- and environmental-savings to those shareholders (focused on profit) and stakeholders (focused on the business as a member of something greater).

There are numerous minds working diligently to corral the idea of sustainable design and circular economies. However, not doing more with what we currently have available will never get the design processes where they need to be.

For instance:

Organics (wet trash) is a global issue. If we focus on nothing other than the methane gas produced from the landfills that dot our planet, we would create an economically viable platform for capturing the new wave of biodegradable products that we are now considering “desirable”. However, that gas should not come as the result of organics that are not currently captured by food related business. It should be the capture of new or not-yet-conceived biodegradable products built with design thinking.

The cost of mitigating the current landfill gas seepage into the atmosphere is proven to be successful where it is attempted and yet, the process is still largely underutilized. An effort to capture this greenhouse gas (for further use – a tenant of the circular economy thinking) has had notable results and has contributed to a reduction in the emission of methane.

A Costly Way to the Solution

In a report prepared by the World Bank examining the methane problem as a potential recovery effort, they make it clear that the effort requires community support. “Beyond purely financial considerations, employing appropriate social and environmental safeguards as well as obtaining the support of communities surrounding LFG (landfill gas) abatement sites are key to overall project success in both developed and developing country contexts. A history of mismanaged community relations by LFG developers may be a red flag to potential investors.” Those financial considerations are sizable.

You can read the whole report here. To summarize though: If you, as a business owner do not do as much as you can as soon as you can, your membership in the community will cost more as your local landfills reach capacity or retool to capture new technologies (those costs will be passed on to your company). Your cost of moving all waste will increase (logistics suggest the distances between organic creation and organic disposal will be greater in each successive year). Worse, there is the eventual (and potential) regulatory interference which could also add another cost to your operation (and may be hard to quantify until are notified).

A Much Less-Costly Way to the Solution

Once again, your business should not be contributing to the issue. The new design thinking may be overwhelmed by old school habits. It will be best used for new biodegradable products.

So why aren’t you doing more? Why do we still regard efforts to remove organics from the waste stream as not cost-effective? How do businesses make the connection that this problem should be at the forefront of the company’s relationship with its customers?

This is the point in the conversation where I make a pitch for my business – and with good reason. I have been on your side of the problem and I know how to fix the issue. In many instances, even if the processes in your community are not yet in place, I have the resources and partners to remove your organics from your waste stream. This might mean creating partnerships where none currently exist. It may mean tapping internal resources, enlisting your employees and customers through marketing, public relations and human resources to engage leadership. It will always involve a clear financial picture of the potential savings facilities and operations will experience as a result of the effort.

We think of landfills (or not) as terrestrial entities. We dig deep holes, deposit the waste and fill the airspace with dirt, layer after layer. Increasingly though, what we bury is rising to revisit us. This is due to the fact the landfills really just occupy sky. A zero waste approach to your organics will go a long way to save the sky. There is little dispute on this point. Can we discuss how you can help get there?

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