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Landfills and Dumps

The government regulates waste disposal.

Garbage in a landfill must be buried daily. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
Garbage in a landfill must be buried daily.

Landfills and Dumps

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away over 250 million tons of garbage every year and only 85 percent of it gets recycled. Both the industrial landfill and the local town dump play a role in waste disposal. Landfills in particular are becoming increasingly important in the recycling of post-consumer waste.

The Difference between a Landfill and a Dump

Both landfills and municipal dumps are geographical areas set aside for the collection and deposit of consumer waste. The differences between the two types of garbage depository, however, are quite significant.

As explained by the National Solid Waste Management Association, there are approximately 1,700 landfills in use. The number of landfills decreases as the size of them increases. Landfills are highly regulated waste depositories run by a government agency that must adhere to waste treatment laws and processing regulations. They have a government-mandated groundwater policy in place. The garbage in a landfill must be buried (covered with dirt) on a daily basis.

There are different types of landfills, including landfills for industrial garbage, landfills for municipal solid waste (i.e., household items and waste) and landfills for construction waste. Many newer landfills offer high levels of recycling facilities.

Dumps are considered illegal because they do not adhere to government regulations regarding the burying of waste and the controlling of groundwater contamination. Many dumps still exist and are simply that -- places to dump things with no mind for what happens to the waste. Many landfills were once dumps or were constructed on the sites of former dumps.

A Closer Look at Landfills

The life of a landfill is a continuous cycle, just as garbage is continuous in life. Landfills continue their processes until capacity is reached. When there is no more room to deposit new garbage, a new landfill is created.

The process of creating and using a landfill adheres to the following basic steps:

  • A large, deep, regulation-sized pit is dug into the Earth's surface
  • A leachate collection system is placed in the bottom of the pit
  • A regular landfill liner is placed in the bottom of the pit
  • There is a groundwater tester well placed beside the pit to monitor possible contamination
  • There is a leachate treatment system beside the pit to treat the leachate caught by the liner system
  • The pit is filled with waste collected from nearby municipalities
  • The waste is covered with a layer of dirt at the end of each day, reducing smells and deterring pests
  • The pit is repeatedly filled with garbage and covered with dirt until it is full
  • Full pits are sealed using clay and dirt
  • Full landfills are covered by greenery, forests, golf courses, etc.
  • A new pit is built and the process begins again

 

Generally, landfills are seen as eyesores and unwanted vermin attractors and many communities protest their creation. The lining systems in landfills are fraught with problems and the potential for groundwater contamination remains. Many people struggle to find the positive aspects of landfills.

Recycling at the Landfill

Many landfill facilities are offering recycling centers on their sites. Discarded items, such as computers, contain valuable precious metals that are extracted and reused. Appliance waste includes everything from hair dryers to refrigerators. Hazardous materials, such as Freon, as well as reusable liquids, such as oil, are extracted from appliances and sold for reuse. The recycling of metals and rubber tires is common among traditional sanitary landfills.

Many argue for the end of landfills due to the fact that a lot of waste that could be reused and recycled is buried at the end of every day, in accordance with government regulations. Over time, landfills can break down and release harmful toxins into the groundwater. Rather than eliminating contamination, opposition groups say landfills only delay its occurrence.

Because of the fact that regulated landfills are tightly sealed and lined to prevent the leakage of contaminants, they inhibit the natural processes that usually break down waste. Biodegradation is the reduction of items to their basic elements.The landfill prevents the natural rotting of items and so hides, rather than destroys, waste, as well as prevents the recycling of such materials.

Down on the Dumps

The traditional dump is illegal due to its lack of processing or control. Without government regulation, waste that is discarded outside of a regulated facility has the potential to pollute groundwater, which is essential drinking water. The move to report illegal dumps and clean up illegal waste sites is strong.

What makes a dump different from a landfill is the absence of the following government-mandated requirements:

  • Government-regulated practices of operation -- how to control waste, prevent odor and deter pests
  • Monitoring of groundwater -- checking to see if water is contaminated because of the proximity of discarded waste
  • Restrictions on location -- a dump is anywhere where residents or past municipalities have found space to deposit garbage
  • Use of liners -- landfills have liners in the bottom of their waste holes to protect nearby groundwater from contamination
  • Capture of leachate from waste leachate is liquid/water waste that comes off solid waste and can contaminate drinking water
  • Having to cover the waste with dirt -- most dumps are piles of waste


Traditional dumps are few and far between these days, with so many government regulations in place to protect groundwater. Those still existing have been converted through the introduction of liners to sanitary landfills.

The Future of Waste Disposal

Alternatives to the process of landfills include incineration of waste and the reduction of waste. If post-consumer waste was reduced, the need for landfills would also be reduced. By choosing sustainable products, reusing containers and taking items to a recycling center rather than simply throwing them in the garbage, the overall waste in a landfill can be decreased.

The burning of consumer waste, such as food and paper in the landfill environment, can cause the release of dangerous pollutants into the atmosphere. Several green organizations are campaigning for the removal of organic waste from landfills by 2012 to help protect the ozone layer. As grassroots campaigns increase, the landfill owner comes under more pressure to recycle as much waste as possible.

The modern landfill is increasing efforts to recycle waste, but this often takes more energy than it saves. New technology such as the plasma-enhanced melter that melts solid waste, reducing it to a gas so that it can be used as fuel, is a step forward in the destruction and reuse of post-consumer waste.

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