It often is too easy to despair in the fight against climate change, but as a young waste professional, I believe it is never too late to make an impact. In a recent opinion piece, Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann and Stephen Gerritson, board members at the Institute of Energy and Resource Management, outline the current effects of landfilling waste, particularly concerning methane emissions. Landfills are (and will continue to be) a crucial component of the U.S. waste management approach. Still, their use should be minimized in favor of resource recovery facilities practices that manage materials with a lower climate impact. Landfills represent our inability to use discarded materials, but as that inability fades, so should the use of landfills.

Mitigating the current impact

Landfills currently are reported to be the third-largest source of methane emissions in the U.S. With the Biden administration’s heightened focus on reducing methane emissions, landfills must be comprehensively evaluated to mitigate their environmental impact. Alternative waste management systems are rooted in the international waste hierarchy: prevention, reuse, recycling, recovery and disposal. At Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, our consultants have built on this well-known hierarchy with our own sustainable materials management hierarchy. We believe effective management of solid waste directly affects the health of our planet—both today and far into the future. We, too, favor a hierarchy that prioritizes the rethinking of current waste systems to reduce lost value and maximize resource recovery.

Opportunities in recycling and sustainability

One of the most significant opportunities to divert materials from landfills lies in recovering material resources from the waste stream. With current curbside collection programs across the nation, many consumers diligently segregate their recyclables for recovery, but some do not. As a result of this, combined with other programmatic, contamination and market issues, the U.S. recycling rate remains between 30 percent and 35 percent compared with European countries’ higher diversion rates. Material processing technology is reaching a point where facilities can jointly handle municipal solid waste (MSW) and single-stream recycling, but it has not been implemented in practice. The primary challenge for the conjoined streams is the expensive components of recovery that maximize the diversion but are not economically viable for many communities. However, communities can still work in that direction if they seize the opportunity to lead by example to identify technology that can work for them. Recovery technologies are diverse, and with thoughtful selection, communities can employ one or more to fit their goals while remaining economically feasible.

Leading by example

In Kent County, Michigan, officials have established a bold goal of reducing landfill waste by 90 percent by 2030. Kent County has developed a master plan for a 250-acre sustainable business park to convert what otherwise would be waste materials into marketable products to reach this goal. The park will include infrastructure to recover energy, organic waste, aggregates and recyclables such as fiber, plastics and wood from MSW for use as building materials. Overall, the business park creates infrastructure to support a regional circular economy while lessening waste’s negative impact on our environment.

Hope in the climate fight

Although landfilling currently is making a significant environmental impact and national recycling rates are low, I believe the shift to a new sustainable materials management system will eventually come to pass. Consumer education and increased waste-aversion efforts are necessary to ease the transition into an improved material management system that requires time, capital and a paradigm shift surrounding the value of materials in waste.

After such a system is in place, retired landfills could potentially be mined to recover their contents. I believe that within a decades-old piece of plastic under a mountain of trash, we might find some hope for a cleaner future.