What really happens in landfills and incinerators?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency,  11.2 million tons of textile waste ended up in landfill in 2017. Research shows that each year,more than 80% of our clothing ends up in landfills and incinerators. In the textile industry, large amounts of water, energy and other natural sources are used along with a wide range of different chemicals and dyes. Let alone that most garments take more than 200 years to decompose in a landfill. Landfills and incinerators are also responsible for toxins released in the atmosphere such as mercury and cadmium which are highly carcinogenic.

What are landfills and incinerators?

Many have the perception that landfill is the same as a dump, which is basically an open hole in the ground where domestic and other waste is thrown and buried. But a landfill is more than that and definitely more overt. It is a carefully designed structure, usually above ground where waste is collected and isolated from the surroundings such as air, water and rain. The isolation is done with a bottom liner or a daily covering of soil.

There are two types of landfill:

  • Sanitary landfill: It is a place where waste is isolated from the environment until it is safe. ‘Safe’ means, when waste is completely decomposed, physically, biologically but also chemically. There are four conditions in order to achieve a high degree of isolation in such landfills and they should always be adapted to local conditions: 

    • a) hydro-geological isolation, which is the addition of extra lining materials in landfills to avoid leakages (leachate) that can pollute the soil and groundwater 

    • b) proper engineering practices after local geological and hydrological research. A waste disposal plan and a final restoration plan is of utmost importance. 

    • c) Constant control and supervision, and 

    • d) planned waste emplacement and coverage into thin compact layers.

  • Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfill: This is the most common landfill and uses synthetic plastic liners to isolate the waste from polluting the surroundings. It also has its own operating regulations and engineering practices. In 2009, there were approximately 1,908 MSWs across the USA alone.

In high-income developed countries, the level of waste isolation achieved by landfills may be high. However, it does not mean that it still protects the environment and public health from all the pollution. Imagine what happens in developing countries then.

Incineration is a waste management process through controlled burning into furnaces and is often used in the production of electricity. It is popular among smaller countries like Japan due to their scarcity of land. The issue with incineration is that the combustion process burns refuse items that could otherwise be recycled or composted. The other issue is that many waste items contain toxins like mercury and dioxins which produce CO2 and nitrous oxide when burned. Currently, Germany has 68 waste incinerators in operation that can fit up to 20 million tonnes.

What happens in landfills and incinerators?

Landfills and incinerators are a good solution for waste management, however, the issues overcome the solution. As mentioned, in landfills, toxins, and leachates from vast amounts of waste constantly pollute the soil and groundwater even after proper isolation measures. The incineration of merely 1 mg of municipal waste releases around 0.7 to 1.2 mg of CO2 output.

In landfills, general waste emanates potent greenhouse gases (and we are not talking only about CO2, but various by-product outputs) due to compression and subsequent lack of oxygen. Some of them are also flammable and when built up, can cause serious damage to the surroundings. In 2008,  1 billion liters of leachate were collected only from New York’s landfills.  The accumulated waste forms a hill that can reach more than 46 meters height and ever more soil layers are added every day. More than 15% of this landfill waste comes from food and yarn, and it could have easily been composted instead of piling up.

The ash coming from incinerators contains gaseous traces of heavy metals and sometimes these ashes end up weighing many kilos. They can contain cadmium, a carcinogenic that is dangerous to inhale. And the most important thing is that once waste is burned, it can never be used for anything else. Namely, a better assortment of waste into organic, recyclable and products can truly decrease the effects from landfills and incinerators.

How does Kleiderly contribute?

At Kleiderly, we have made it our mission to reduce the amount of clothes that end up in landfills and incinerators. We want to give unwanted clothes and overproduction a new, sustainable life by turning them into clothing hangers. We solve two problems: Unwanted clothes and oil-based plastic use.

Sources:

https://www.kleiderly.com/our-blog/these-african-countries-do-not-want-our-waste

https://www.ipcc-nggip.iges.or.jp/public/gp/bgp/5_3_Waste_Incineration.pdf

https://www.fastcompany.com/3062853/these-maps-show-how-much-of-the-us-is-covered-in-landfills#:~:text=There%20are%202%2C000%20active%20landfills,Fresno%2C%20California%2C%20in%201937

https://www.teachengineering.org/lessons/view/cub_enveng_lesson05

https://www.buschsystems.com/resource-center/knowledgeBase/glossary/what-is-refuse#:~:text=Refuse%20refers%20to%20any%20disposable,leftovers%20that%20cannot%20be%20recycled

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0956053X17309388

 

Figure 1. Final share of clothing waste per year.

Figure 1. Final share of clothing waste per year.

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