Why are landfills bad for the environment?

17 June 2021

We all know that landfills are unpleasant – but how exactly do they impact our environment? In this blog we highlight how landfills are affecting our planet, and how you can reduce how much of your waste ends up in landfill!

What is a landfill?

why are landfills bad

A landfill (also known as tips and rubbish dumps) is a large piece of land where waste is disposed by burial. The landfill waste is crushed into small pieces so that as much can fit in as possible. It is then buried under soil to decompose. Landfill is the oldest and remains the most common method of waste disposal, despite the increase in recycling over the years. Due to lack of oxygen within landfills, some landfill waste can take thousands of years to break down! So think about that old mobile phone or clothing that you threw away, that will still be around for a long time!

Some developed countries have regulations where landfills must be sanitary. Sanitary landfills are constructed so that the waste is isolated from the surrounding environment until its safe. They are lined with plastic and clay before the waste is deposited to prevent leaks, however the EPA have stated that over time these liners will degrade and tear. This means that landfills need to be carefully and consistently monitored for leaks, but this may not happen.

Environmental impact of landfills

So, why are landfills bad for the environment? Below we have highlighted the main issues that you may not have been aware of.

why are landfills bad for the environment

Greenhouse Gases

Landfills don’t just look unpleasant, they cause a lot of damage to our planet and the environment. Landfills release greenhouse gases into the air, which is made up of around 50% carbon dioxide and 50% methane. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) are the two biggest contributors to global warming. CO2 emissions from landfill were 14.2 million metric tonnes in 2019 in the UK alone!

Methane is around 25 times more potent at capturing heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a 100 year period. Landfills are to blame for a lot of methane pollution, as around a third of the UK’s methane emissions are caused by landfills. When these gases are released into the atmosphere they trap heat and warm the planet. As well as global warming, these greenhouse gases also cause smog and air pollution. Other harmful chemicals such as ammonia end up in landfills which can also release pollution and impact air quality.

Groundwater Pollution

When it rains, this rainwater enters landfills and collects toxic chemicals from the waste, gathering at the bottom of the landfill. These toxins, known as leachate, can seep into the groundwater and contaminate it. Modern landfills usually have a clay liner to prevent toxins from leaking, however older landfills usually don’t have this. Landfills can keep producing leachate for hundreds of years, causing long-term issues for the environment. Landfill waste such as electronics and batteries have harmful toxins such as lead and mercury that can leak into the groundwater. This can impact marine life if it reaches streams and rivers, as these chemicals can de-oxygenate the water. It can also pose a threat to human health if it leaks into waterways.

Soil Pollution

Leachate can also pollute the soil surrounding the landfill. This can damage soil quality and impact biodiversity, affecting fertility and plant life. Vegetation may be no longer be able to grow as it becomes harder for water to be drawn from the soil.

Wildlife Impacts

Landfills can also harm wildlife. The construction of landfill sites often mean that portions of wildlife habitat is destroyed. Trees are sometimes cut down to expand landfill sites, impacting the wildlife that lives there. Landfills can also attract other animals like rats and birds that feed on the waste as the landfill is being filled up. This can drive out the animals that live nearby.

Fire Risk

You probably haven’t considered it, but landfill fires are surprisingly common, with 840 landfill fires in the US between 2004-10. These can occur due to flammable or combustible waste within the landfill. Landfill fires will often contain harmful gases and toxins that are released into the air. They also pose a safety risk to those living near the site.

Health Impacts

Landfill waste can also pose health impacts to those that live nearby. Of course they are an eyesore, and they can also emit a bad odour due to decaying waste. Air quality is contaminated due to the greenhouse gases, and vermin such as rats and seagulls may flock to the site to feed. Leachate can also pose a health risk if it leaks into the waterways.

Some studies have suggested there could be a link between landfill exposure and the likelihood of birth defects. There have also been studies that suggest there may be a link between landfill exposure and increased chance of lung cancer and respiratory illness.

What can we do to reduce landfill waste?

Reducing our waste is more important than ever. Landfills are getting fuller, as we continue to produce more and more waste. The average household in the UK produces more than one tonne of waste every single year. To put this in perspective, a small car weighs around 1-.5 tonnes. The World Bank estimate that without any action being taken, global waste generation will increase by 70% to a huge 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050. So if you are conscious of your carbon footprint, it is important to try and reduce how much you contribute to landfill.

Recycle and reuse

why are landfills bad

Of course, the most obvious thing you can do is to recycle wherever possible. The frustrating thing is that around 80% of waste we throw out could have been recycled! So before you throw anything in the bin you should ask yourself: can I recycle this item or reuse it in some way? You can also donate items like unwanted clothing and food to charities and food banks so that it doesn’t go to waste.

Simple things like taking a reusable bag with you to the supermarket, and bringing a flask with you to work will reduce the amount of plastic waste you contribute to landfill!

Reduce food waste

why are landfills bad for environment

Food waste is a huge issue, with UK households wasting 4.5 million tonnes of perfectly edible food per year. You can try writing out a shopping list and planning meals so that you aren’t wasting food that can end up rotting in landfills. You can also use your vegetable and fruit waste as compost. Also, don’t forget that you can often freeze extra food to extend its life! If you feel like you have bought too much, you can always donate to a food bank so that it does not go to waste.

Shop responsibly

why are landfills bad for the environment

Being more careful about your purchasing habits can also make a big difference. We live in a throwaway society where we buy things on a whim without thinking. Textile waste is a huge issue, with 80% of our clothing ending up in landfill or the incinerator. So, you should try to buy less and buy from ethical brands. You should also make sure to read everything carefully before making a purchase. Here at Fairwayrock we strive to provide our customers with insights and information so that they can make informed buying decisions. When you make informed purchases, you reduce product waste. You also reduce the number of products you need to return, which often end up in landfill.

You should also consider buying recycled and refurbished products instead of brand new. This extends a products life cycle and save it from landfill. You can read our blog post here where we discuss the pros and cons of buying refurbished electronics.

We hope that this blog has helped inform you on why landfills are bad for the environment, and how you can reduce your landfill waste!

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