What happens to your waste after it goes to landfill?

Disposing of household waste is a simple, mindless task – a quick move – that comes with a lot of consequences.

Most of our waste ends up in landfills – approximately 146.1 million tons of municipal solid waste was landfilled in 2018 alone. And it never leaves that destination, instead stationary in a limbo state, emitting harmful greenhouse gases and languishing out of sight. And once it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind, right?

The answer should be no. Read on for the truth about what happens to your waste when it goes to landfill.

What really happens to all that waste?

To minimize odor and possible litter, the landfill waste is ground, compacted and buried on arrival. Once compacted, this tightly packed material leaves little room for oxygen, a necessary part of the decomposition process. Without the presence of oxygen, the breakdown must take place anaerobically, a process in which bacteria slowly break down the waste.

Methane gas is a byproduct of anaerobic decomposition and has quickly become the most harmful greenhouse gas. According to the EPA, landfills are largely responsible for these emissions. In 2020, methane emissions from landfills were equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions from nearly 20.3 million passenger cars.

Increasing methane emissions are due to the inability of waste to decompose in a landfill. Increasing emissions of methane gas continue because the waste material does not decompose, a problem that is exacerbated by our use of plastic garbage bags.

The truth about plastic garbage bags in the landfill

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Using plastic bags to dispose of household waste is a pretty ironic (read: hugely harmful) practice. In fact, plastic is the only material that never breaks. Even after 1000 years, a plastic bag will leave behind tiny particles of what it once was, and will never completely disappear.

Why do we bother to dispose of material in a non-degradable container? As with landfill systems, plastic bags are not designed to break down waste. Similar to the burial and compression method, plastic bags lack the oxygen and moisture needed to decompose their contents. Simply put, food scraps, paper, packaging and other potentially biodegradable materials stay in the bag and don’t break down at all.

The remaining material can contaminate the environment in the form of leachate, a liquid created when rainwater filters through landfill waste. So as if methane emissions weren’t enough, we now have biodegradable material rotting in plastic bags, leaching pollutants into the soil around it.

How can we combat this problem?

Composting organic matter is the best and most sustainable alternative to throwing food away, and – until our waste system is completely overhauled – one of the best (and only) proven proactive steps to reduce waste.

Composting involves the incorporation of food scraps, yard waste and other organic materials into a communal bin where, in the right environment, your waste will begin to decompose and turn into soil. You can compost both indoors and out, or look for community collections near you — there’s even an app for that. (Many individuals, families, or farmers would be happy to take your food scraps off your hands.)

But what about non-food items? Upcycling waste is another way to reduce waste, i.e. reuse something in a way that increases the value of the original object. You can upcycle clothes that are too worn out to donate by turning items like t-shirts into plant hangers or cleaning rags. Or upcycle any waste into furniture, such as an old suitcase into a table. You can even turn trash into DIY decor to enjoy at home.

Every small step you take to reduce the amount of waste you produce has a big impact on the amount of waste sent to landfill each day. Whether it’s composting, upcycling or otherwise getting creative, the planet will thank you.


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