The Environmental Toll of Waste: A Closer Look

The Environmental Toll of Waste: A Crucial Aspect of Climate Change

By Dan Nienhauser, CEO & Co-Founder at Stellar3

As we face the clear and devastating effect of climate change, the human race must seek to reduce waste wherever possible. To do so, we must work to develop a circular economy that seeks to continually reuse products instead of discarding them after a single use. In the past century, we have blindly treated our lands and oceans as receptacles for a growing amount of detritus, which is why we must now commit to making the world a better, cleaner, and more sustainable place.

Landfills emit significant amounts of greenhouse gasses (GHG), contributing both directly and indirectly to climate change. Among the direct impacts of landfills are methane and carbon dioxide emissions, leachate production, and air pollutants caused by incinerating landfill-designated wastes. In other words, landfills represent an environmental and climate catastrophe.

However, current economic models make it difficult to avoid single-use disposable products and the widespread use of landfills. So, we need a societal shift towards more sustainable practices, such as waste reduction, circular raw material replacements, and improved recycling, all of which would reduce disposable products and the use of landfills.

A Closer Look at Landfills

While some might assume that trash disappears when you throw it away, that’s sadly not the case. The majority of the world’s trash is sent to landfills, where it is buried but will never really go away. In 2018, over 146 million tons of municipal solid waste went to landfills in the United States alone. That’s 400,000 tons of waste every day buried beneath our soil. What’s more, burying raw materials increases the demand for new products, which increases the environmental impact across the entire supply chain.

Organic waste like food scraps decomposes anaerobically – without oxygen – in landfills. This process produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that traps even more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide – by various estimates about 87 times as much. Last year, landfills were responsible for 11 percent of all methane emissions, but this number is projected to grow as waste accumulates in tandem with a growing population and landfills become even more widespread.

Again, another problem is landfill leachate, which occurs when toxins in landfills seep out into the surrounding soil. Though leachate doesn’t represent a greenhouse gas per se, it can contaminate water resources like groundwater reserves. Treating or managing this leachate also requires additional energy, which releases greenhouse gasses.

It is possible to drive behavioral change on the public’s part by increasing awareness of the impacts of landfills. The public needs to know about sustainable waste management options like composting and comply with recycling campaigns. However, making the public more engaged is only a small part of the solution. Change needs to happen at the source as well.

The Plastic Problem

One especially troubling waste issue is the effect of plastic. Approximately 300 million tons of mixed plastics are produced every year, of which 79 percent ends up in landfills or as litter in the natural environment. We are polluting our land, ground water, and oceans with plastics that take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose.  

What’s more, in island nations, much of the plastic waste is directly discarded in streams, rivers, and the ocean due to a lack of landfill space. Our oceans are then filled with waste plastics. Plastics in the ocean can disrupt phytoplankton, which are microscopic marine plants and algae that absorb carbon dioxide and play a crucial role in carbon sequestration and the marine food chain.

Plastic particles can also interfere with the feeding habits of tiny marine animals called zooplankton. Changes in zooplankton populations can affect the ocean’s biological pump, a process that allows the ocean to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it in sediments on the seafloor. The larger marine organisms that are also part of the carbon cycle feed on plastic indirectly via the consumption of phytoplankton or zooplankton, affecting their ability to thrive and, ultimately, carbon sequestration.

The Environmental Toll of Waste - Looking out at a cold, bleak oceans from a rocky shore

New Ways to Manage Waste

Clearly, we need to develop new systems to change the way we handle waste as well as how much we produce. As waste volumes increase and recycling systems continue to underdeliver, innovative techniques are necessary to reduce GHG emissions and landfill use.

In terms of direct emissions reduction, a number of modern landfills now use methane capture technologies to harness methane for energy production. It doesn’t eliminate methane production, but it converts it into a less harmful form (CO2) and produces energy.

However, GHG capture technologies don’t address the underlying problem: the growing amount of waste and what to do with it. Thankfully, in many countries, governments are now fostering a favorable policy environment for waste transformation, one that goes beyond harmful and toxic incineration practices to more sustainable solutions.

Recently, science and engineering capabilities have improved to the point where circular waste management is not just feasible, but also economically viable. Circular waste management involves transforming waste into suitable replacements for scarce natural resources, or as an energy source. To implement such a system, we need to learn, implement, improve, and continue to expand our understanding of the various transformation processes available.

For example, some companies are developing thermochemical conversion applications that can reduce the need for virgin materials and fossil fuels. These systems convert waste, such as mixed plastic and sorted municipal solid waste, into energy assets like low carbon liquid fuels and electricity.

Thermochemical conversion that involves the transformation of biomass or other materials into useful products through the application of heat. One key aspect of thermochemical conversion is that it relies only on the application of heat to drive chemical reactions, so it can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the conversion process when excess heat is used to heat new feedstock that is being processed.

A Look to the Future: The Environmental Toll of Waste

It’s clear that we face a critical need to confront the environmental toll of waste. A global movement supporting a transition to a circular economy, coupled with sustainable practices like waste reduction and recycling, is paramount to providing a clean, livable future.

Thankfully, public and private sectors are now mobilizing around sustainability, creating a sense of urgency and collective responsibility. We need to harness waste as a resource, drive economic growth, create sustainable communities, and combat environmental degradation before it’s too late.

2 thoughts on “The Environmental Toll of Waste: A Closer Look”

  1. I am always a little concerned about objectivity when the author of an article about waste simply dismisses incineration as an option.
    There is no single solution to our problem with waste and environmentally friendly incineration should be one of them.

    • Hi Doug, Thanks heaps for sharing your thoughts. If you have a link to a study or an NGO exploring environmentally friendly incineration, you’re welcome to share it. You are completely correct that there is no single solution to this global issue.


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