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.
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.