Different waste management options are going to have different pros and cons.
In this guide, we outline whether landfills might be good or bad for the environment specifically.
Summary – Are Landfills Good or Bad For The Environment?
It depends on various factors.
Some waste in landfills are worse than others, and some landfills are worse than others.
Organic matter decomposing in landfills for example might emit methane and carbon dioxide – both greenhouse gases.
Furthermore, leachate (a toxic substance from the mixing of rain on the toxic chemicals in the landfill waste) can leak out of landfills, or penetrate the landfill lining, and contaminate water sources and soil.
There’s also a big difference between the well contained landfills in developed countries and the open & uncontained landfills in poorer/underdeveloped countries – which can impact the environment negatively in a number of ways via contamination, pollution etc.
So, it’s a case by case basis for how landfills might be good or bad.
Certainly in the long term we might look to recycle, compost and reduce waste altogether as much as is practical and feasible, but in the short term, landfills seem to offer a number of environmental benefits.
Read more about the overall pros and cons of landfills in this guide.
How Landfills Might Be Good For The Environment
Landfills provide a way to isolate materials from the environment in one place
Landfills provide a way to dispose of and contain waste which can’t be recycled or handled with another waste management option
In developed countries – landfill technology has vastly improved compared to even 10-20 years ago. Lining systems are better, and leachate management is better – leading to lesser negative impact on the environment
Methane can be captured from landfills and can be used as a source of energy generation to power homes with electricity
Some landfill sites can be rehabilitated or restored after their use to become parks or other types of useful areas
All three of toxins, leachate and greenhouse gases in landfill sites can be managed to an extent, or in the case of greenhouse gases, reduced
How Landfills Might Be Bad For The Environment
Organic matter in landfills decomposes and produces greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide
Incinerating waste in landfills, and using landfill waste for energy conversion can produce greenhouse gases and air pollution
Rain mixes with chemicals and hazardous substances in waste like e waste and PVC piping to create toxic leachate – this leachate can escape the landfill if not managed properly, and contaminate soil, groundwater, and surrounding water sources
Landfills use up land resources
Waste that goes to landfill and isn’t recycled, or resources aren’t recovered from, contribute to resource depletion, as new materials have to be sourced for future products that become waste. This is not congruent with a circular economy
In developing countries, uncontained landfills allow waste to escape which can pollute the environment and also cause harm to wildlife e.g. plastic waste that gets out into the ocean, breaks down into microplastics, but also can be ingested by marine animals
Some Stats On Landfills & The Environment
- In 2014, U.S. landfills emitted 148 million metric tons of methane—a gas whose impact on global warming, pound for pound, is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide