Landfill waste, associated pollution, toxic and chemical waste – – part of chapter 1 of research study

A landfill site is typically an area designated for the ‘controlled’ dumping of materials thrown away by human beings; such an area must be distinguished somewhat from the less formal rubbish dumps (which add to the numbers below an estimated 98,995,672 tons of ‘illegally’ dumped waste globally1) where measures of control of the ‘trash’ is lacking. A massive amount of mixed, unrecycled materials is sent daily to landfills across the world, resulting in increasingly massive heaps of discarded consumer material. According to a 2012 World Bank report entitled ‘What a waste: a global review of solid waste management’2, an estimated 3 billion urban residents currently produce on average “1.2 kg per person per day (1.3 billion tonnes per year). By 2025 this will likely increase to 4.3 billion urban residents generating about 1.42 kg/capita/day of municipal solid waste (2.2 billion tonnes per year).”

As Laslzo (2006:27) says, “The wastes discarded into the environment do not vanish; they come back to plague those who produce them as well as other communities near and far.” In the case of ‘trash’, if one takes the average annual landfill-waste produced by 300 million people and piles it to a whopping height of 40 stories, the area covered would be 160,000 acres3 of almost completely unusable land. The area around such sites also stand a high risk of groundwater contamination: Waterencyclopedia4 puts it better: “The creation of leachate, sometimes deemed “garbage soup,” presents a major threat to the current and future quality of groundwater”. Unsurprisingly, the people who live near the millions of landfill sites across the world stand an increased risk of getting different diseases, cancer being a prominent one, as highlighted in at least one study5, due to “naturally occurring landfill gas… escaping into the surrounding air”. Furthermore, landfill gas comes partly in the form of methane, a highly volatile greenhouse gas; as the notorious Environmental Protection Agency comments6, in the United States alone, “landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the [country], accounting for approximately 18.2 percent of these emissions in 2012.”

While on the topic of trash, it is worth drawing attention, as Greenpeace7 (for one) has, to the ‘island’ of floating plastic the size of Turkey in the North Atlantic. The ‘island’ is constituted by discarded ‘throw-away’ materials, almost entirely plastic, that drift along currents to a central point (a ‘gyre’) and join with other floating debris. As Greenpeace says, “Some of the larger items are consumed by seabirds and other animals, which mistake them for prey. Many seabirds and their chicks have been found dead, their stomachs filled with bottle tops, lighters and balloons.” The plastics also leech chemicals into the ocean, as they do in landfills, gradually increasing toxicity levels. The North Atlantic gyre is one of five prominent ocean gyres slowly increasing in size and toxicity.

‘Garbage’ sent to landfill may be one source of environmental pollutants, but there are many more. This has already been seen in section 1.2 on greenhouse gas emissions – 36 billion metric tons of CO2 released globally as pollutants every year8. Another well-known example is that of fertilizers and pesticides that find their way into rivers and ultimately the oceans; in the USA, for example, the “Mississippi River carries an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico each year, creating a “dead zone” in the Gulf each summer about the size of New Jersey.9” It is therefore unsurprising that, as Kovel (2006: 2) points out, “One-half of US coastal waters were [as of the year 2000] unfit for fishing or swimming”. Almost every country in the world now uses such large scale agricultural techniques that require chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Laszlo (2006:27) summarises the general waste and pollution situation when he writes that we “inject an estimated 100,000 chemical compounds into the land, rivers and seas; dump millions of tons of sludge and solid waste into the oceans; release billions of tons of CO2 into the air; and increase the level of radioactivity in water, land and air”. The final issue raised by Laszlo – radioactivity – needs some elaboration, especially in the light of the following information from Greenpeace10: nuclear reactors “create radioactive waste that will remain hazardous for 240,000 years”, and that “radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants accounts for 95% of the radioactivity generated in the last 50 years from all sources”. Moments’ exposure to such high-level nuclear waste can result in a fatal dose of radioactivity for human beings and animals11, but as Greenpeace wryly points out, the nuclear industry has not been able to keep track of all of its nuclear waste! (The Guardian corroborates – “Radioactive materials have gone missing from businesses, hospitals and even schools more than 30 times over the last decade”12); the source adds that at at least four nuclear waste disposal sites in one county in the USA, radiation has been leaked into the environment. As recently as February 2014, a New Mexico nuclear waster disposal (‘storage’ is a better word) site – “America’s only nuclear waste repository”13 – was closed because of a massive radioactivity leak – at the time of writing, investigations into the unknown nature of the leak continue14.

It must be pointed out that there is a lot of nuclear waste around – Greenpeace15 puts it well when they say that, in the United Kingdom alone, there is “enough radioactive waste to fill the Royal Albert Hall five times over”; they add that there is no safe way to deal with nuclear waste, that the current method is to bury it (which is hardly ‘dealing’ with it), that there is no way to guarantee leaks from the stored life-threatening substances (the reported leak of 2014 above is a case in point), and that leaks contaminate water sources and food chains. There are currently 434 nuclear reactors worldwide16; over the past four decades, the industry has produced 71780 metric tons of nuclear waste17; all of this waste will still be actively radioactive in tens of thousands of years time. One source18 aptly asks the question, “Where do you put 250,000 tonnes of nuclear waste?”, seeing as, according to the source, this is the estimated amount “currently in interim storage, submerged in huge tanks of water in facilities that keep it safe – temporarily.” Considering such information, alongside the disaster and continuing aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it can hardly seem surprising that Germany made the decision to shut down its nuclear power plants by 202219.

Finally, the alarming rate of release of toxic chemicals into the environment worldwide needs to be mentioned. According to the ‘worldometer’20 for the release of chemicals by industries, among whose sources are Eurostat, the EPA, and the UN Environment Program, 310 kg are released globally for every second that passes, amounting to approximately 10 million tons annually. Note that this is not just ‘pollution’, but toxic chemical pollution, the kind that, to quote from the worldometer site, “can cause severe illness, poisoning, birth defects, disease, or death when ingested, inhaled, or absorbed by living organisms”; unsurprising, seeing as of the 10 million annual tons of toxic chemicals released globally, “over 2 million tons (over 4.5 billion pounds) per year are recognized carcinogens. This amounts to about 65 Kg each second.”