A landfill is just one of several waste management options available, with some others main ones being recycling and incineration.
In this guide, we outline the pros and cons of landfills as a waste management option.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Landfills
While landfills can attract a lot of negative attention, they are probably a waste management option we can’t do without in most countries in the short term, and into the future.
Cities like San Francisco produce little landfill waste (compared to recycling and compost), and are looking to become zero landfill waste in the future – but not every city is San Francisco, with the money, systems and factors that play into San Francisco’s waste management strategy.
The pros and cons of landfills really need to be broken down on an individual level by waste type, the city (and their short and long term waste management plan), and local conditions.
For example, what to do with waste depends on the social, economic and environmental impact of each of the waste management options. Some types of plastic waste are actually beneficial to society in a number of ways, and they may not be economically viable to recycle.
Or, take glass for example, where there are steep economic challenges to recycling glass when it’s much easier to make it new. Aluminum and other metals comparatively make a lot of sense to recycle.
Further to this, a lesser developed and poorer country is going to struggle in many aspects trying to go predominantly recycling with their waste management strategy, when they don’t have the infrastructure, funding or systems set up yet.
On top of this, a modern landfill (landfills have become more advanced and much better over time) with good lining and leachate management technology may present a much lower environmental concern than most think.
There are cons to landfills, but the pros can be significant in some instances too.
It needs to be analysed on a case by case basis.
Pros (Benefits) Of Landfills
Some of the potential benefits of landfills might include:
Can Help Handle Excess Waste – With the recent ban from China on accepting recyclable waste from other countries, many countries and states had no choice but to send excess recyclable waste to landfills because their recycling systems couldn’t handle the excess.
Landfills provide a pressure valve release for emergencies such as this with import/export of waste issues, and other issues such as when the market for materials like recycled plastic collapses (because of oil prices or something else)
Modern Landfills Can Be Beneficial In Several Ways – A good/modern landfill site with a good soil lining, and good leachate management systems, may result in minimal negative environmental, social and economic impact for some types of waste compared to other waste management options
Landfills In Developed Countries Usually Have To Meet Regulations & Standards – In developed countries, landfills usually have to meet strict regulations and laws to be set up and to be run – there are standards they have to meet
Toxins and Leachate Can Be Managed – there’s ways to manage leachate, and there are ways to reduce the greenhouse gases produced by landfills (hcr-llc.com)
Provides A Plastic To Dump Non Recyclable Materials (Plus Other Problem Materials) – Landfills provide a place to dump materials that aren’t recyclable (might be a non recyclable material or a contaminated piece of plastic for example), or aren’t feasible to recycle for one reason or another
Landfills Come In Different Types For Different Waste – municipal, commercial/industrial, and hazardous waste landfill sites
Special Landfills Can Be Good For Hazardous Materials – Landfills provide a place to dump some types of more hazardous materials that need to be segregated from the general public
Can Be Used For Energy Capture – waste from landfill can be used in a number of ways for energy generation. Landfills can be used in a commercial context to harvest materials from, for gas recovery, and energy generation from incineration
New Technology Is Developing – There’s constantly new technology being developed to make use of waste from landfills, and improve the containment and management of landfill sites
Can Be Good For Lesser Developed Countries – Well managed landfills provide a quick way for developing countries or poorer countries to dispose of their waste in a safer and more healthy way – compared to recycling which may be more complex and expensive
Can Be More Eco Friendly Than Recycling In Some Ways – Recycling can be energy intensive, water intensive and not as environmentally friendly as people think sometimes (washing plastics before recycling them, as is the recommended practice, could end up adding to greenhouse gas emissions. And the extra trucks and processing facilities produce CO2 as well). Landfill provides an alternative in this instance
Can Make More Financial & Practical Sense Than Recycling In Some Ways – Some argue that when certain materials don’t make sense from a lifecycle perspective to recycle, governments are wasting money on recycling (which is more expensive from a processing perspective) they could be spending elsewhere
Remaining Land Space Might Not Be An Issue For More Landfills – Data on land available for landfill space in several countries shows there is enough space into the short to mid term future. This outlook could be further improved if we figure out more sustainable ways to deal with landfill waste
Land Can Be Rehabilitated Or Converted After Landfill Lifespan – Some landfills are actually converted into parks and other green spaces after they are no longer needed – so, rehabilitation of the land may be available as an option in some instances
Can Provide A Livelihood For Some Of The World’s More Unfortunate – Open landfills provide some in developing countries a way to earn a living via picking valuable waste – where there may be no other employment options, or employment options with lower wages/income
Has Other Uses – Apart from disposal of waste, landfills can be used for other purposes such as temporary storage, consolidation and transfer, or processing of waste material (sorting, treatment, or recycling)
Operation Costs Can Be Lower Than Other Waste Management Options – Landfills can have fewer fixed or ongoing costs than recycling or resource recovery, and incineration
Cons (Disadvantages) Of Landfills
Landfills Can Be An ‘Easy & Quick Option’ For Waste We Could Be Diverting Elsewhere – Landfills provide an easy and cheap option for lazy residents who don’t sort their waste properly, and in cities where landfill dumping rates are still relatively cheap. Landfills can be an ‘easy out’ to dump waste instead of recycling it for example
Might Not Be The Best Economic Option – Local economics and incentives may mean that other waste management options make more financial sense
Waste To Energy Capture Isn’t Perfect – Some say burning of landfill waste for energy is sustainable and environmentally friendly – but, the air pollution or greenhouse gases it can put out is far from sustainable and environmentally friendly
Smell – Smell of waste and decomposing materials for surrounding residents can be bad
Aesthetics – Landfills can look aesthetically ugly
Can Devalue Surrounding Land & Properties – Some data shows that land and properties surrounding landfills can be devalued because of the presence of landfills
Can Emit GHGs – Landfills can produce greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide from decomposing organic waste. This contributes to climate change
Leachate Can Be Produced – Landfills can produce leachate when rain washes through hazardous materials, or materials with toxic chemicals in the landfill. Leachate is a toxic substance
Water Pollution From Leachate – Water pollution and contamination can occur if leachate breaches the landfill lining, and gets into groundwater, or surrounding rivers, streams and other water sources
Soil Pollution From Leachate – can occur if leachate breaches the landfill lining
Land Could Have Been Used For Something Else – Landfill uses up land that could otherwise be used for something else i.e. there’s a use of land resources
Uncontained & Poorly Managed Landfills Can Be A Problem – especially in developing or underdeveloped countries. Waste can get out into rivers, and the ocean. They can be a huge health and safety concern to those who are exposed to certain types of waste, gases and landfill discharge. Rats and vermin carrying diseases from landfill can also be a problem.
Some Countries With Landfills Become Dumping Grounds For Other Countries’ Trash – With exporting and importing of waste, some states and countries become a dumping ground for the waste of other states and countries (poorer countries may sacrifice environmental health, and the health of their citizens, in order to be able to charge money to take waste from richer countries)
Materials & Resources Dumped In Landfill Aren’t Being Recovered Or Re-Used – The problem with dumping in landfills is that you aren’t re-using resources (assuming the waste just sits there) – this is a problem in terms of resource depletion and sustainability. Virgin materials have to be used to make new products, which means more mining or more manufacturing and depletion of resources.
We might look to reduce, re-use, recycle and recover materials before dumping in landfills
Can Be Compromised During Natural Events – If landfills are not stabilized, they may experience severe shaking or soil liquefaction of the ground during a large earthquake
Landfills Can Cause Infrastructure Disruption – such as damage to access roads by heavy vehicles. Pollution of local roads and water courses from wheels on vehicles when they leave the landfill can be significant and can be mitigated by wheel washing systems.
The Liner In A Landfill Has A Lifespan – before it gets weak and starts leaking or allowing leachate and toxins through. Landfills must be maintained or closed and rehabilitated before this happens
Can Be Dependent On It’s Microbial Population In Some Ways – The microbial population in a landfill can determine how effective it is at decomposing waste – if it’s not good, there can be issues
Finding A New Landfill Site Can Take Time & Have It’s Challenges – you have to assess transport costs to get the waste to the landfill site, bushfire risk, flooding risk from nearby rivers and water sources, suitability of the soil, impact on the surrounding area + other factors.
It generally takes several years to find an appropriate landfill location, get a permit for it, and then build structures that meet environmental standards in places like the US – some reports say some sites can take up to 5 to 7 years to permit, and can cost millions on dollars. Some landfills can be expensive to set up depending on the technology used
Landfill Practices By Country
Recycling vs Landfill vs Incineration vs Composting: Comparison