Seeking Alternatives to Landfills

Jensen, Nathan, Animal Science                                                                                                       Nigrelli, James, Animal Science                                                                                                             McCallister, Shane, Urban Forestry

Seeking Alternatives to Landfills

Looking back to waste management techniques practiced in the late 1800’s, it was common to send barges filled with municipal waste out to sea to be openly dumped (Roberts, 2011). By disposing garbage into the ocean regularly, it can be assumed that there was little knowledge or care over the impacts that this had on the environment. The first significant improvement from open dumping did not happen until the Fresno Sanitary Landfill was established in 1937 (Vincenz, 2010). Being the first landfill to follow rules and regulations, it showed substantial progress in the waste management industry.  There has been little progress in our waste management techniques in the 77 years since sanitary landfills were created.  Using landfills as a primary method of municipal waste disposal is outdated and alternative forms of management need to be adopted.

The Fresno Sanitary Landfill covers approximately 140 acres of land just southwest of Fresno, California. (Vincenz, 2010). To be classified as a sanitary landfill, there are basic minimum requirements that must be met. First, there must be full or partial hydrogeological isolation, meaning that the environment must naturally contain leachate. Leachate is the liquid waste that is produced from landfills. If this leachate is not naturally contained, additional liners must be added to reduce the damage caused to the environment. Formal engineering preparations are the second requirement. Formal engineering preparations consist of a waste disposal plan and a final restoration plan for when the landfill reaches maximum capacity. Permanent control, which is a trained staff that supervises and maintains the operation, is also mandatory. Lastly, there must be planned waste emplacement and covering. This ensures that the waste is spread, compacted and covered daily to make the waste less accessible to pests (Thurgood, 1999, p. 6). Although these regulations were initially great strides in the waste management industry, statistics show that these methods cannot keep up with the waste output that is produced today.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, there were 23 operating landfills in Massachusetts in 2010. During that year, 10.6 million tons of waste was produced. (Neale, 2013, p. 36). In the year 2020, Massachusetts is projected to produce nearly 11.5 million tons of waste. “By 2020, only five landfills in Massachusetts will be active and permitted to receive a mere 600,000 tons [per] year of waste” (Neale, 2013, p.38). “The average person dumps almost 4.5 pounds of waste into landfills every single day” (Skye 2012), which is double the amount of waste each person was producing in 1960 (Quinlan 2014). This makes it apparent that this system is outdated and will not be able to manage the amount of waste produced in the future. There are new methods for waste management that are currently used and it is time to implement these techniques municipally.

Gasification by plasma arc is one technology that can be utilized to decrease the amount of waste that landfills receive.  Plasma arc gasification machines use temperatures from 4,000 to 25,000 degrees Fahrenheit to burn organic and inorganic waste. According to Byun, Cho, Hwang and Chung (2012), organic waste is converted into hydrogen gas that can be used as a source of energy by way of steam or gas turbines. Inorganic waste is turned into slag, which can be utilized in a plethora of building materials such as masonry, roofing, and glass manufacturing.  Unlike incineration, there is no emitted pollution.  Various pollutant gasses are not emitted into the atmosphere from this system because gasification occurs in a sealed chamber where oxygen isstarved at exceptionally high temperatures (Byun et al., 2012).  In brief, plasma arc gasification produces practical yields from municipal waste.

Plasma arc gasification technology is utilized to manage municipal waste as an alternative to landfills in Canada, Korea and Japan.  The United States, France, and Sweden use plasma arc gasification to manage hazardous and medical waste (Byun et al., 2012). The United States Army and Navy also use this technology to manage shipboard and chemical waste. In the early twenty first century, Japan boasted of two gasification plants managing 54 tons of municipal waste a day (Strickland, 2007).  Massachusetts needs to begin incorporating this technology, among others, into the municipal waste management program.

Anaerobic digestion is the process of breaking down organic matter in an oxygen deprived environment and can be used to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills.  According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “over 30 million tons of food waste is sent to landfills each year [in the United States]”(EPA 2007 pg.1). According the EPA, “food waste produces 376m3 gas/ton [while] cattle manure only produces 25m3gas/ton.”  Landfills only hold and hide waste while this process removes and reuses the waste in an efficient and sustainable way.

Food accounts for 18% of all waste in landfills (EPA 2007 pg.1).  This consists of over 30 million tons of refuse. When organic matter decomposes it release gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Those biogases are a useable and self-replenishing source of energy. While some trash is no longer usable, food waste can still provide an energy value. When put through the anaerobic digestion process, people can use this type of waste to its fullest.

When food waste is put into a large container for processing, there are several things that happen. First off, when things decompose they release biogases which can be collected and used for heating or fuel. The second byproduct is heat.  Millions of microorganisms break down the organic matter and produce heat.. This heat can be used by factories to power other machines like steam turbines. The third and final product is the decomposed food refuse what can be used as an effective and potent fertilizer.

This way of handling food is an effective and beneficial way of extracting all the resources from the waste. Wastewater treatment plants are the perfect place to adopt this method of using materials to their fullest potential. Many waste water treatments around the country already have anaerobic digester in order to reduce the volume of solids that pass through their facilities. With employees trained in using these digesters it seems like a perfect place to host this waste conversion process. If facilities do not already have these accommodations it is estimated that if they were installed it would take about three years in order to pay back (EPA 2007 pg.4)

With more and more states passing organic material bans this method of waste conversion will become more popular. If a corporation or college campus produces more than a ton of organic waste a week, they have to separate it and have it discarded properly such as anaerobic digestion (Mass DEP 2014 pg.1). All byproducts of this process can be used from the gases to the solid waste at the end. It is not necessarily a cleaner way but is a more effective and efficient way to reduce the amount of waste entering landfills. This isn’t meant to be an end all be all solution to landfills but it is an option that allows us to use our resources to their fullest potential. In the long run this will help to reduce the amount of landfills needed.

The main opposing audience would be the average citizen who would expect their taxes to increase to fund this new technology. However, this does not need to be the case. The large corporations that own many landfills would be expected to pay.  We will reach a time where landfills are no longer an option and the large companies that do not make the switch will eventually lose business. If they decide not to make the adjustment while landfills are still readily available for use, the state of Massachusetts can opt to send its waste to the companies who are supporting the change.  There are many companies developing and using gasification and anaerobic digestion for waste management, thus creating the future of the business.

Landfills are no longer practical for managing the amount of waste that Massachusetts is producing. Although landfills have served as a functional system in the past, it is time to adopt new techniques that can handle our waste output. Producing more and more landfills to handle the increasing waste we are producing is not a solution to this growing problem. Technology like plasma arc gasification coupled with techniques using anaerobic digestion will help reduce our reliance on landfills.




Byun, M. Cho, M. Hwang, S.  and Chung. J (2012). Thermal plasma gasification of municipal solid waste (MSW). doi: 10.5772/48537 or Http://


Environmental Protection Agency. (2007). The Benefits of Anaerobic Digestion of Food Waste At Wastewater Treatment Facilities [PDF]. Retrieved from


Mass Department of Environmental Protection( 2014). Commercial Organic Materials Waste Ban Guidance for Businesses, Institutions, and Haulers.


Neale, Z. (2013, February 1). The Massachusetts Waste Conudrum. Biocycle (Vol. 54, No. 2, p35).Retrieved from


Quinlan, A. (2014, July 9). Photos of people with seven days of their own garbage speak to waste in America. Retrieved from


Roberts, J. (2011, January 1). A Brief History of Waste Regulation in the United States and Oklahoma. Retrieved from


Skye, J. (2012, January 1). Environmental Problems: Landfills. Retrieved from


Strickland, J. (2007). How plasma converters work. Retreived from


Thurgood, M. (1999). Decision-Makers’ Guide to Solid Waste Landfills. Retrieved from


Vincenz, J. (2010, January 1). Fresno Sanitary Landfill (1937). A Guide to Historic Architecture in Fresno, California. Retrieved from



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