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Landfills cannot be considered an endangered species in the U.S., but landfill operators might put them in the “threatened” category if using wildlife survey terminology.

Increased regulation and scrutiny often triggered by not in my backyard (NIMBY) attitudes has prompted the closure of thousands of landfills in the previous five decades. Those factors often also contribute to difficulties when landfill expansion proposals are made.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified 1,908 municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills in its 2009 survey, a figure that has almost certainly declined since then. The 2009 figure is significantly lower than findings from the EPA’s 1986 survey, when 9,294 landfills were identified, of which 6,034 were classified as MSW landfills by the EPA.

Although fewer in numbers, landfills continue to play a vital role in America’s waste disposal practices. The landfills that survive tend to be large in size and daily intake. They also tend to be managed by multinational or large regional firms with adequate engineering and legal counsel to contend with the highly regulated habitat in which landfills dwell.

That status is reflected in the accompanying list of America’s largest landfills, most of which are operated by large waste and recycling companies. The landfills listed took in 1 million or more tons (of predominantly MSW) in the most recent year for which a figure could be obtained, and the names of companies operating them would be familiar to most Americans who stop to read the signs on the collection trucks that roam their neighborhoods.

Lifespans and diversion

Operators of many landfills have developed a defensive attitude toward their properties—they take consistent action to prolong the life of each landfill, knowing how difficult it will be to expand the existing one or site a new one in the future.

Recycling has played a major role as a means of diverting material from landfills, and more recently, waste-to-energy conversion technologies have provided another avenue for diversion.

To some extent, this has muddied the waters in terms of how much material is entering landfills. In some states or jurisdictions, tonnage is measured by how much material enters the landfill property’s gates. However, many landfill sites (including some on the accompanying list) also host recycling operations and waste-to-energy conversion facilities on the same property.

Seneca Meadows landfill in the state of New York describes itself as “a waste management and recycling facility” that is “centrally located in Seneca Falls, New York, making [it] the primary disposal facility for businesses and communities throughout the state.”

The property, currently managed by The Woodlands, Texas-based Waste Connections Inc., hosts not only a 400-acre landfill, but also has on its 2,600-acre campus:

  • a tire recycling facility that can handle up to 2 million tires per year;
  • a recycling drop-off center that accepts most types of paper, several types of plastic, glass containers and aluminum and steel cans; and
  • an electronic scrap drop-off center that accepts most types of computer equipment and consumer electronics items;

Beyond traditional recycling, more waste-to-energy technologies also are likely to find homes on landfill “campuses” as owners fight to extend the life of their property.

With landfill operators having become comfortable with landfill methane gas-to-fuel systems (and in some cases anaerobic digesters), they may find their already-permitted landfill campuses also will be ideal places to produce refuse-derived fuel, solid recovered fuel and other types of engineered boiler fuels designed to capture the energy calories found in some fractions of the waste stream.

The feedstock necessary to supply such systems may be easy to find in 2018 and 2019. Policies adopted by the Chinese government have caused tons of mixed paper and baled plastic, formerly shipped to that nation, to build up as stockpiles in early 2018. If some of this material is to continue to be diverted from the landfill in the short to medium term, it may require additional waste-to-fuel production capacity.

Expansive thinking

Recycling and waste diversion are ideological causes for some people, but for solid waste district managers, city officials and hauling companies, recycling and diversion may be necessary lifeboats for generating revenue.

Landfill expansion projects run into organized resistance in seemingly every case when a permit request is made. Nongovernmental and activist groups dedicated to making landfills a thing of the past have developed techniques to challenge municipal or state leaders who may be otherwise inclined to grant landfill permits.

A growing target of complaints against some landfills involves the acceptance of out-of-state MSW, often trucked or shipped by rail over more than one state border.

In Michigan, complaints focus on waste shipped from the Canadian province of Ontario. That province, like several U.S. states, has regulated landfills to a level closer to extinction. Despite efforts to boost recycling in Ontario, however, its 14 million residents continue to generate MSW, and in the 21st century, much of it is crossing the international border.

A 2017 audit conducted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) found a 19 percent increase in Canadian waste shipped to Michigan in its fiscal 2017 year compared to the prior year. The 10.5 million cubic yards of waste (which included MSW, construction and demolition debris and some industrial wastes) was the most shipped from Canada to the Wolverine State since the 2008 fiscal year.

While Michigan has an international aspect to its waste net importer status, it is not the only state landfilling material from a long distance away. As states in the Northeast, in particular, have phased out new landfill permits or expansions, the MSW generated there has not evaporated. Instead it has been packed into trucks or rail cars and sent to states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Each of those states has sparsely populated regions that can avoid the harshest NIMBY confrontations, allowing for larger daily permit sizes than can typically be granted anywhere in New England or other smaller states.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that of the roughly two dozen 1-million-ton landfills identified by Waste Today, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Georgia join California as the states with more than one site that qualifies.

The future of landfilling is uncertain, but if the trends of the previous four decades continue, America will likely be home to fewer landfills. However, the ones remaining might just be bustling with activity.

The author is an editor with Waste Today and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.