While greenhouse gas emissions from our cars, trucks, and coal and gas plants are front and center in the climate conversation, one source of fossil fuels is out of sight and out of mind for many: our landfills.
As our organic waste like food, paper and yard scraps decomposes in a landfill, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that holds more than 25 times more warming power than carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, landfill methane is a major contributor to climate change.
This is especially true in Illinois, which was recently ranked ninth in the country for highest methane emissions from landfills.
An analysis released earlier this year by climate and industry advocacy group Industrious Labs shows that municipal solid waste landfills account for more than half of Illinois’ industrial methane emissions, at 58%. That’s compared to other large industrial emissions from sectors like mining, metal manufacturing and food processing.
Nationally, landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States after livestock and natural gas, according to the federal EPA.
“The bottom line we found is that the stakes are really high when it comes to landfills and methane pollution,” said Katherine Blauvelt, the Circular Economy Campaign Director for Industrious Labs. “Whether you live near a landfill or not, trash impacts you. Landfills impact our air, our water, our land, our communities. And waste doesn’t disappear. Every day for many years, it continues to create harm.”
Local landfill output
The results of the lab’s study can be found at dontwasteourfuture.org.
The website includes an interactive emissions map that shows how municipal solid waste landfills stack up against other methane sources from industry in each state. Using data from the federal EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, it also pinpoints specific landfills and how much methane they emitted in 2021.
Two of the Illinois’ biggest landfill emitters are in Rockford and east of St. Louis, while closer to home, two landfills in Lake County produced methane equal to about 122,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021. That’s equal to 15,376 homes’ energy use for one year.
Statewide, landfills emitted 9 million metric tons in 2021, which can be translated to 1.9 million gas-powered cars driven for a year, according to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.
“We made that interactive tool to really shine a light on an industry that’s mostly in the dark,” Blauvelt said. “Everyone can just see for themselves what these landfills are reporting in terms of estimated methane emissions, and then people can act on that information.”
At the Waste Management Countryside Landfill in Grayslake, which released methane equal to 62,937 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, methane is collected and processed into “renewable natural gas” or “biogas,” which can then be used to power natural gas vehicles.
Previously, methane gas collected at Countryside Landfill was used to fuel an electrical generation plant with excess methane gas flared at the site: Many landfills burn gas in a flare, a process that converts most of the methane to carbon dioxide, reducing the impact on global warming.
The practice is the subject of some debate, as the emissions still cause global warming but are less harmful in the near term.
“Reducing climate impact and greenhouse gas emissions is a top priority at WM,” Lisa Disbrow, a spokesperson for WM of Illinois, said. “As part of our commitment, we have invested heavily in our landfill gas collection systems that meet or exceed federal requirements. In 2022, we had a 10% reduction in landfill greenhouse gas emissions from upgrades to gas collection and control systems, over the previous year.”
Countryside Landfill is expected to close later this decade, Disbrow added. The Illinois EPA requires all closed landfills to be monitored for a minimum of 30 years, which includes methane gas monitoring.
New policies, habits
Advocates say emissions can be reduced through policy work and through individual actions at the garbage bin.
At the federal level, Baluvelt said the EPA can update its New Source Performance Standards and Emissions Guidelines for municipal solid waste landfills to require more effective landfill covers, tighter monitoring standards for methane leaks, and earlier implementation of methane capture and collection systems, a conclusion shared by a recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental organization based in Washington.
More comprehensive monitoring is especially significant because emission data is informed by formula-based estimates, and federal EPA staff members have stated those formulas are flawed and that emissions could be double what’s currently reported, Baluvelt said.
She added that states can get ahead of federal regulations by updating their own policies, a step that states like Maryland and California have already taken.
In Illinois, several pieces of relevant legislation are in the works, such as bills that would require methane emission reductions at landfills, increase government use of compost, and support on-farm composting.
Liz Kunkle, the zero waste policy manager at the Illinois Environmental Council, said that while policy work is important and ongoing, individuals can help curb the issue at the source by diverting food waste from their own trash bins.
“I like focusing on the food scrap piece because … it’s a lot easier for individuals and businesses to control those choices. It’s a lot easier — and frankly cheaper — to implement and manage a food scrap collection and diversion system than trying to install wind energy or investing in an electric vehicle,” Kunkle said. “Those are things that only certain people can do anyway, under the best of circumstances, but potentially all of us have a greater opportunity to manage our food intake and disposal.”
According to the FDA, an estimated 30% to 40% of the nation’s food supply goes to waste. Based on estimates from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, that percentage corresponded to about 133 billion pounds and $161 billion in food in 2010.
“Food is the single largest category of material placed in municipal landfills and represents wasted nourishment that could have helped feed families in need,” according to the USDA’s website. “Additionally, water, energy, and labor used to produce wasted food could have been employed for other purposes.”
For Kunkle, the answer to reducing methane emissions at landfills isn’t easy, but education on diversion methods like composting is a core part of the solution.
“We have to keep talking to people — to residents at the grass-roots level, to businesses, to municipal government staff,” she said. “It’s about connecting the dots for folks so they understand the issues.”
• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.
Methane: Reducing food scraps an easier, cheaper solution