How Your Trash is Impacting Climate Change

posted: 10/14/15
by: Danny Clemens
Garbage trunk dumping waste on landfill
Rob Breece/Getty Images

Picture this: a pair of white smokestacks juts hundreds of feet into air. Black smoke billows from the top of the stacks, slowly dissipating into the dishwater-colored sky above a run-down factory.

You're likely see to that sort of image atop many articles discussing the perils of human-induced climate change -- and for good reason. Transportation and industry (traditional black smoke producers) own a lot of responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. According to a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency, the industrial, transportation and energy sectors were responsible for more than three-fourths of greenhouse gas emissions in 2013.

Surprisingly, though, another large chunk of emissions comes from something that you probably don't even think about: trash. The decomposition of municipal waste is one of the largest human-produced sources of methane emissions in the world.

Although we hear endless chatter about carbon emissions (and for good reason), methane emissions are just as troublesome: methane is 20 times more potent by weight than carbon dioxide. In landfills, methane gas is produced during the decomposition of solid waste: small microbes 'eat' the waste, producing gaseous methane as a byproduct for several decades.


Fortunately, we've learned how to harvest some of this methane gas and turn it energy. Many modern landfills are equipped with systems that capture methane gas before it escapes into the atmosphere.

"The collection and control system consists of a large-scale vacuum source and a device to combust or otherwise 'destroy' the collected gas. In some cases, the collected gas can be piped off-site to another location," Jon Powell, a Doctoral Student in the Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering at Yale University, tells Discovery.

Once captured, landfill gases can be a robust and effective source of energy. For almost a decade, the University of New Hampshire's main campus has received nearly 85% of its energy from reclaimed landfill gas. A partnership with Waste Management, the university's EcoLine Project utilizes gas reclaimed from a nearby landfill to provide campus buildings with heat and electricity.

According to the EPA, which awarded EcoLine the Landfill Methane Outreach Program Award in 2010, the program's annual energy savings are equivalent to the amount of energy required to heat nearly 20,000 homes.

As of July 2013, more than 600 different landfill gas reclamation projects across the United States have produced 16 billion kilowatt-hours of energy, enough to power almost 1.2 billion homes.

Landfill garbage waste dumped in the rubbish dump site


Unfortunately, the rate at which we produce waste is rising. A 2013 study found that world waste production is set to triple by the end of the century -- we could be producing 12 million tons of solid waste around the world each day by 2100.

There are also conflicting reports about how much waste we presently produce. A study recently penned by Powell employed newly available data to determine that solid waste production in the United States is nearly double what the Environmental Protection Agency had originally estimated.

"Now, we have a better feel for these things like how much we are disposing of, how much capacity we have, and how effectively we are collecting gas, among other observations," Powell says via email.

"This can improve our understanding of the state of things, but more importantly can allow us to put some thought behind these data to make better near- and long-term decisions regarding how we manage our waste materials."


One of the easiest ways that you can make an impact on landfill gas emissions is to reduce the amount of waste that you discard -- reduce, reuse and recycle, as the old saying goes.

Check out these easy ways that you can #StartWith1Thing and make an impact:

  • Drink tap water from reusable bottles instead of purchasing disposable plastic water bottles. If you and 10 friends say no to plastic bottles for 18 months, you'll save a barrel of oil.
  • Recycle disposable plastic waste. Each family of four that recycles its mixed plastic waste eliminates the equivalent of nearly 340 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually, the EPA found.
  • Compost food scraps. For each pound of scraps that you use to make fertilizer, you'll prevent the equivalent of 3.8 pounds of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere.
  • Take reusable canvas bags to the grocery store instead of using plastic bags. In a year, you could save up to a gallon of crude oil.
  • Plan your menus in advance and shop mindfully. A recent study found that Americans waste 2.3 billion pounds of seafood each year.
  • Volunteer for a beach trash cleanup. In 2015, the Ocean Conservancy had 560,000 volunteers in 91 countries collect more than 16 million pounds of trash that otherwise could have ended up in the ocean.

Click here for more simple ways to #StartWith1Thing and take a stand for the planet.

Racing Extinction horizontal key art

On Wednesday, December 2nd, Discovery will present a global broadcast of Racing Extinction, a powerful eco-thriller that exposes issues of endangered species and mass extinction. Visit RacingExtinction.com for more information.


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