Let’s Talk Trash: What the EPA’s Methane Rules Lack on Landfills

, senior fuels engineer | August 20, 2015, 8:55 am EDT
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Methane is a potent greenhouse gas—34 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In our battle against climate change, we need to limit methane’s release into the atmosphere, which is exactly what the EPA’s methane rules, released earlier this week, attempt to do. But as documented in our recently released fact sheet, we can do more with methane than just limit its release. In fact, in the case of landfills, we can actually optimize methane production and capture it as a low-carbon biofuel. I’ll have much more to say about reducing climate emissions from the oil and gas sector over the next several months—stay tuned—but for now, let’s talk trash.

Methane emissions from landfills are a real problem – a real problem that doesn’t need to exist

The EPA’s announcement of new regulations for the oil and gas sector on Tuesday are taking up most of the media’s attention, but it followed proposals released last Friday that would also strengthen the methane mitigation rules in place for landfills, which are the third largest source of anthropogenic methane in the United States.

This fact may come as a surprise to most—landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions? Really?

Yes, and while we don’t think about the climate implications of our waste management system very often, methane emissions from landfills are a very real climate problem that should not exist in the first place. With over two-thirds of our waste ending up in landfills, our waste management system is over-reliant on this disposal method. Many of our landfills have been taking-in waste for decades, and some landfills in operation today are slated to continue taking our trash for decades to come. Nearly half of our landfilled waste is organic, which produces methane and other greenhouse gases as it decomposes.

Landfill gas wells, such as this one pictured, are part of the landfill gas collection systems required to be in place at certain landfills. Newly proposed methane rules for landfills will strengthen existing regulations and will expand the number of landfills that must comply with EPA standards. However, more could be done to reduce the amount of methane generated by landfills in the first place and to incentivize the efficient production and use of biofuels from organic waste. Photo: EPA

Landfill gas wells, such as this one pictured, are part of the landfill gas collection systems required to be in place at certain landfills. Newly proposed methane rules for landfills will strengthen existing regulations and will expand the number of landfills that must comply with EPA standards. However, more could be done to reduce the amount of methane generated by landfills in the first place and to incentivize the efficient production and use of biofuels from organic waste. Photo: EPA

To address this climate pollution, the EPA requires landfills of a certain size to capture and destroy methane before it is released into the atmosphere. These are important regulations, as greenhouse gases from our landfilled waste will continue to be produced for years to come. However, even landfills with gas collection systems are not great at capturing and mitigating all of the methane that they generate. While the proposed landfill methane regulations seek to lower the threshold for compliance–requiring more landfills to manage methane gas–the proposal does nothing to attempt to reduce the amount of methane being generated by landfills to begin with.

To solve this problem, and not just put a band aid on it, the EPA should consider how to limit the amount of organic waste entering landfills. Diverting organic wastes from landfills makes it easier to keep it out of the atmosphere, and facilitates using it for energy, as biofuel, or electricity – lots more on this in our fact sheet.

Finally, as we move to optimize the utility of our organic waste resources, we need to be smart about our in-place landfill infrastructure. Regulations on landfill gas collection are important—but just as it is important to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations, it is vital that overall methane generation and flaring is limited at landfills as well.

Methane needs to be viewed as a resource, not a nuisance to be managed. Making use of available methane is the proverbial opportunity to make straw into gold, or Trash into Treasure.

Posted in: Biofuel, Energy, Global Warming Tags: , , , ,

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  • Peter Anderson

    Never has ceteris paribus so upended the best laid plans of mice and men than at a landfill.
    Everything else is not equal when one seeks to extract energy from methane generated by rotting garbage.
    The liner based design basis for landfills is to keep the site as dry as possible for as long as the manmade barriers retain their vitality in order to minimize biological activity and thereby fugitive emissions into the atmosphere and leachate into groundwater.
    However, these so-called “dry tomb” designs rob the waste mass of the essential moisture necessary to generate sufficiently energy rich gas with enough methane content to economically generate power.
    In consequence, unknown to the general public, landfill operators have completely upended the entire safety basis of these liner based landfills by deliberately increasing moisture with recirculated leachate and outside liquid additions. But to do that means delaying installation for many years of a cover seal, which is absolutely essential for the vacuum based gas collection systems to function adequately.
    The result: at the same time as gas collection efficiency is more than halved, methane and gas generation is doubled.
    Since methane has 86 times the warming potential of CO2 in the hear and now, that secondary impact cost overwhelms whatever gains there are, if any, from substituting very dirty landfill gas for the high efficiency natural gas turbines on the utility grid.

    In this, the true landfill gas story is like the reality of ethanol — something seemingly good hijacked by its corporate backers for personal gain under the false cover of climate change.

  • Lyle Crump

    Instead of venting methane escaping from landfills it could be collected and burned to make electricity. Sewage treatment plants are another location to collect methane and burn it to make electricity. All too often it is just burned off wasting the energy that is free.

  • Richard Solomon

    Here in the East Bay area of SF we separate our waste into ‘green’ (food related waste), recyclable (paper, glass, etc), and other. The green does not go into landfill. It can be used to create methane which is then used….rather than released into the atmosphere. Once one learns the system, it is easy to separate out one’s trash in the kitchen. This saves a lot of space for landfill and prevents the escape of methane into the atmosphere. Other areas of the country should shift to this system…..pronto!

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