The Lowdown on Landfills

You’ve just swallowed your last sip of Dr. Pepper as you crumple the wax paper from your cheeseburger. You gather the  paper napkins, plastic straw and a few burnt fries among other things. After you toss this waste and leave your tray, more than likely, you never think about this trash again.

We’ve all heard about the local landfill on the outskirts of town, but most of us are unaware of its inner-workings and effects on the surrounding areas. Americans generate an average of 4.6 pounds of trash daily per person. So, where does it go?

Let’s get to the bottom of what really goes on behind a landfill’s gates.

The Purpose of a Landfill

Of the estimated 251 million tons of consumer solid waste generated each year in the U.S., approximately 32.5 percent of the trash is recycled or composted, 12.5 percent is burned and the remaining 55 percent is buried in landfills.

Currently, there are 3,091 active landfills and more than 10,000 old municipal landfills in the United States. Photo:

According to the EPA, as of 2007, there are 1,754 active landfills in the U.S. Photo:

According to the EPA, municipal solid waste landfills (MSWLFs) are “publicly or privately owned, new, existing, or lateral expansions of landfills that receive household waste (including hazardous household waste), and that may also receive other types of RCRA Subtitle D wastes, such as commercial solid waste, non-hazardous sludge, and industrial solid waste (including exempt hazardous waste from CESQGs).”

The landfill is a structure built on top of the ground, or in a shallow pit,  in which trash is confined and secluded from groundwater, air and rain.

The bottom of the landfill is lined while the top is repeatedly covered with soil. A landfill uses clay liners to isolate trash, while a municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill can use synthetic or clay liners.

The purpose of a landfill is to isolate waste from its surrounding environment, preventing water contamination and contact with air. However, landfills are not built to decompose trash.

How a Landfill is Built

There are strict regulations on where a landfill can be built and how it can operate. The process always starts with a proposal. If approved, an environmental study must be done on the prospective spot in order to determine various environmental factors:

  • The necessity of the area of land for the landfill
  • The composition of the underlying soil and bedrock
  • The flow of surface water over the site
  • The impact of the proposed landfill on the local environment and wildlife
  • The historical or archaeological value of the proposed site

Footing the Bill

In most cases, building landfills is the responsibility of the local government. Once the environmental impact study is completed, permits must be obtained from the local, state and federal governments. The cost of building a landfill varies according to location, application fees and engineering cost.

For example, a MSW landfill in Kentucky will run approximately $500,000 to $1 million for the application and design engineer cost, but this fee doesn’t include the construction of the landfill liner. That will cost $75,000 per acre. Generally, the money is raised from taxes or municipal bonds. So, it’s possible that funding for the landfill could come from taxpayers’ pockets. But the upside to using public funding is local approval is required in order to continue with the construction of the landfill.

How a Landfill is Operated

Landfills must be open and available every day. While the majority of its customers are municipalities, commercial and construction companies, residents are also permitted to use the landfill in most cases.

The bottom of a landfill is lined with high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic to protect the surrounding environment. Photo:

The bottom of a typical landfill is lined with high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic to protect the surrounding environment. Photo:

A typical landfill is divided into 17 sections (or stations), each having a specific purpose. The landfill’s entrance has a recycling center with dedicated containers for specified materials. Generally, the recycling area is open to residents and is free to use.

Customers with larger trash loads are sometimes charged to dispose their trash. These are generally construction, demolition or commercial companies.

These customers must have their trash weighed and are required to pay a tipping fee based on the weight of their waste. Tipping fees can range from $10 to $80 per ton.

Tipping fees are a large part of the overall operating budget of a landfill. Household hazardous waste (paints, pesticides and other chemicals) is banned from the landfill, but there may be a drop-off station for these items.

Some paints can be recycled, and some organic chemicals can be burned. The remainder of the landfill is lined with supply structures. These usually consist of soil for the landfill, a runoff collection pond, leachate collection ponds and a methane station.

Impact on the Environment

Landfills present potential threats to both the environment and human health. Although landfills are lined to protect the surrounding environment, malfunctions can still occur. According to U.S. Geological Survey, because chemicals and gasses pass through the liner and its plastic tubes, they become brittle, swell and breakdown. As a result, not only is leakage possible, it’s almost inevitable.

The bioreactor landfill is a developing advancement that will help preserve the surrounding environment. Photo:

The bioreactor landfill is a developing advancement that will help preserve the surrounding environment. Photo:

Those working or living around a landfill with leakage face threats such as an increased risk of cancer and birth defects due to hazardous airborne releases from chemicals in both active and inactive landfills, according to a report by G. Fred Lee & Associates, an environmental consulting firm.

Leakage isn’t the only problem landfills encounter. Because they are lined with high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic, waste decomposes at a much slower rate.

The decomposition process for waste in landfills extends for decades. This results in the evaporation of available space.

Advancements for the Future

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. The waste management industry is working to correct these problems with the development of bioreactor landfills. These landfills use liquid and air to enhance microbial process, accelerating the decomposition process.

Bioreactor landfills may be more beneficial to the environment in comparison to today’s traditional landfills. They will provide a decrease in long-term environmental risks as well as alleviate landfill operating and post-closure costs. Bioreactor landfills could extend the lifespan of an average landfill by as much as 20 years.

Currently, Waste Management is researching both bioreactor landfills and how to extend the life of current landfills. According to its Web site, Waste Management is including expansions that are probable at 62 landfills. The estimated average remaining life of Waste Management’s current landfills is 35 years.

“Waste Management continues to lead the industry in solutions that impact the future of solid waste management, such as Next Generation Technology,” the Web site states. “This alternative approach accelerates the decomposition of waste in landfills so that it occurs within years rather than decades.”

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  1. i dont know if you’ve heard of them but a new start up called Ze-gen is built around the idea of buring municipal
    waste using gasification to create energy. thought you might want to check it out!!!

  2. What I want to know is what the contractors dump in the landfills. Many households are expected to go through and sort out paper, plastic, metal, glass etc…from the non-recylables. Why don’t the contractors? I’m sure it is a time and money issue, but how long does it have to go on? How much of the landfills are commercial versus residential waste? If there isn’t already, wouldn’t this be a good to start up market? This could help put many of the unemployed to work. Two problems solved, or at least helped.

  3. im with chris. is there any regulation, or mandate, in place requiring contractors to recycle or reuse a portion of materials?

  4. The article as posted contains many factual errors regarding the permitting, construction and paying for landfills. Some additional fact checking prior to posting articles may be needed.
    Many landfills are commerically owned and operated so have no taxpayer funds involved in their construction. Governmentally owned landfills can be paid for by municipalities, counties, the states, or a coalition of governmental organizations. All of these would be supported by local taxpayer funds. In either case, commerical or governmental landfills must design to the same standards which are set out by federal and state regulations and includes environmental impact assessment and public meetings. In addition a newer trend for ‘construction and demolition (C&D) landfills’ is becoming popular. These types of facilities actually recycle a good portion of the incoming ‘waste’ into other uses, like reusing concrete in new construction.
    Landfills do not normally have recycling drop off stations or household hazardous waste drop offs, but they may provide these services as long as they are included as part of the landfill’s construction or maintenance permitting by the state. It is more common for landfills to have dedicated areas for dropping off wood waste and yard clippings for reuse as either compost or mulch. These operations would also be covered under the individual landfill’s permit. In addition many landfills are now recovering methane gas for energy production and remove the leachate (the contaminated water from the bottom of a landfill cell) to be tested and treated prior to release. These efforts make modern landfills much less likely to cause air or water quality problems than this article infers. Landfill permits also require an enormous amount of continual testing of air quality, storm water quality testing, and ground water testing to prevent any adverse environmental impacts.
    Modern lanfill construction is also not as simple as the article implies. All of the designs are done on a site by site basis which follows the federal and state requirements. There is also input and confirmation of the submittal from the solid waste permitting personnel at the state regulatory agency (or in some cases the EPA) throughout the process. All landfill permits must meet EPA standards based on the types of materials to be disposed of at the facility.
    Record keeping of incoming waste and tipping fees are always a part of landfill operations for both commercial and municipal waste. Individual municipal users just may have their fees included in their monthly utility bills so may not have to ‘pay at the gate’.
    If you want more technical information about landfills and permitting, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA ) may be able to provide information

  5. I live in Oklahoma City, there are three MSW landfills and one C&D landfill located within 50 miles of the metro, there seems to be a large movement towards recycling which needs to happen. I have experience with the solid waste industry in Oklahoma for the past four years and got very frustrated at the amount of materials that reach the landfills without being recycled. I know that i could pick one landfill out of Oklahoma City for just one day and generate 100 semi truck loads of good recyclable materials out. I am so sure of this fact I built a recycling company in Oklahoma City called Green Options Environmental, we have had great success in diverting major amounts of recyclable materials from the landfills but along the way we have made some serious enemies from the traditional (trash services) along the way. I tried to get the solid waste company, that i worked for to start a recycling programs for a long time, and this is the answer i received when asked, “the only reason a trash company has a hauls trash is to fill the landfill, that’s where the moneys at” or ” it costs to much to recycle” well this didn’t sit very well with me, so i changed it. So far i have deverted hundreds of tons of materials from the landfills and have recycled it. GO GREEN

  6. I am puzzled by glass for recycling. It is frequently much harder to find a place to recycle glass than other items. Yet I read that glass manufacturers are using 50% recycled glass to make new glass?? Another question related to glass recycling – where do bars and restaurants get rid of their massive amount of glass bottles? Surely, if recycling glass is valuable, then these bars and restaurants should be recycling, even more than homeowners??

  7. I was just looking into that exact question Nannymule! I couldn’t find anywhere that says recycling options for restaurants except for their oil. If anyone has info about this I would appreciate it. I have made a goal to get 3 businesses aroung me recycling but not sure what to tell them :)

  8. Thanks for the good post.

    @Nannymule, as I understand it, glass is one of the few materials about that is truly 100% recyclable. Every last bit if it.:

  9. Does anyone know when landfill liners were mandated by the EPA? I was wondering because the first ones with the liners perhaps are getting old. Anyway, if you could direct me to some statute, I’d sure appreciate it.

  10. Pingback: The facts on :Biodegradable | Earthly Finds

  11. Lissa, I think it was around 1994, but I may be mistaken. Nothing lasts forever, including landfill liners. We monitor quarterly for evidence of leachate, methane, and other VOCs which may be released from our landfill….our landfill has been in place since at least the late 70s and is unlined, sitting on top of fractured granite. One thing we have going for us is a very dry climate here in the Mojave desert.

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