Landfills: Just Another Smelly Hill?
Waste management firms are a big player in reducing methane emissions, and they're positioned to teach us about overconsumption.
In addressing global climate change, I find the concept of waste to energy elegant and fascinating. At a high level, waste to energy is the idea of mimicking earth’s natural processes that convert biological matter into something useful again. Fossil fuels are an example of this process, and in fact any biological matter, whether it’s within weeks or millions of years, will eventually be consumed by bacteria that produce methane as an output. Methane is the main constituent (70-90% by volume) of pipeline quality natural gas . So what’s really interesting about this concept is the idea that theoretically all of the world’s organic waste can be converted into renewable energy again.
One of the real issues facing growing economies, and even some mature ones, is the problem of waste management. In many cities, household garbage piles up in unsightly places, creating sanitation and smell problems. One solution is to incinerate it, which can be done in a rudimentary way, such as burning several families’ weekly garbage in a nearby ditch, to more sophisticated methods of incineration at a city managed site. Aside from pollution concerns, garbage incineration destroys non-organic materials that could have been recycled and organic materials that could have been converted into a useful energy source.
In countries where waste management is considered ‘best practice’, i.e. landfills are lined with impermeable geo-fabrics to prevent groundwater contamination and garbage is compacted and covered daily to minimize volume and smells (see Figure 1), there is still the issue of methane generation. As landfill waste decomposes, the biological processes taking place generate methane as a by-product, which is released into the atmosphere. In the US, municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third largest anthropogenic source of methane , a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of 25 times that of carbon dioxide and thus a relative concern in the global climate change discussion.
Figure 1. 
Waste Management (WM), a US-based firm that collects and manages municipal solid waste (MSW), is the market leader in the US waste management industry, owning and operating fleets of garbage collection trucks and landfill sites around the country. WM took advantage of a significant regulatory liability (the ownership of methane-producing landfills) and used it as an opportunity to create renewable energy. By investing in the infrastructure to extract, transport and clean the landfill gas, and in many cases convert the gas into power using an on-site reciprocating engine or steam turbine generator, WM was able to stay ahead of the regulatory environment looking to punish methane producers.
This was a pretty clever idea that waste companies have readily adopted, both to avoid regulatory issues and also potentially to earn some extra revenue on the side selling renewable power. WM currently provides landfill gas to over 135 projects, equivalent to powering 470,000 homes. Also of interest is WM’s strong push into recycling, which essentially removes recoverable non-organic components of waste prior to landfilling, increasing the efficiency of decomposition and methane generation. WM enacted single-source recycling, where consumers and businesses are encouraged to place all recyclable materials into one bin for WM to sort.
Although WM has been exceedingly committed to environmental sustainability, I do think that the waste management industry has a bigger role to play in educating consumers about product consumption (especially of cheaper goods that cannot be readily recycled or re-used) and its effects on climate change. Namely, I believe waste companies such as WM should educate customers to 1) demand more easily separable and recyclable products and 2) reduce its overall consumption of disposable goods.
Although it may not seem in line with waste companies’ core business, as the final ‘owner’ of 254 million tons of trash in 2013 , waste management companies are incentivized to reduce the amount of waste they receive, since all of it occupies precious space on their land. These companies also could feasibly benefit from additional recyclability of products and separability of materials within those products, in order to extract more value when re-selling non-organics such as metals, glass and rubber. Aside from the externalities of climate change that affect everyone, waste management companies may be the only players in the product consumption cycle that do not benefit from cheap, disposable goods. Just as they encouraged consumers to recycle more – Americans recycled and composted 87.2 million tons of material in 2013, preventing the release of about 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide  – waste management companies are uniquely positioned and incentivized to educate and facilitate consumer behavior toward making smarter purchases that consider a product’s end of life.
 NaturalGas.org. (2013, September 20). Background. Retrieved from NaturalGas.org: http://naturalgas.org/overview/background/
 US Environmental Protection Agency . (2016, September 20). Benefits of Landfill Gas Energy Projects. Retrieved from Landfill Methane Outreach Program: https://www.epa.gov/lmop/benefits-landfill-gas-energy-projects
 US Environmental Protection Agency. (2016, September 12). Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures. Retrieved from epa.gov: https://www.epa.gov/smm/advancing-sustainable-materials-management-facts-and-figures
 CSIMarket.com. (2016). Retrieved from http://csimarket.com/stocks/competitionSEG2.php?code=WM
 US Environmental Protection Agency. (2016, October 17). About Partners of the Landfill MEthane Outreach Program. Retrieved from Landfill Methane Outreach Program: https://www.epa.gov/lmop/about-partners-landfill-methane-outreach-program
 Waste Management. (2016). How We Think Green. Retrieved from Waste Management: http://www.wm.com/thinkgreen/how-we-thinkgreen.jsp#Renewable-Energy
 Texas Disposal Systems. (2016). Austin Landfill . Retrieved from Texas Disposal Systems: http://www.texasdisposal.com/austin-landfill/
 Teach Engineering. (n.d.). Design, Test and Build Your Own Landfill. Retrieved from Teach Engineering: https://www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_enveng_lesson05_activity2
Student comments on Landfills: Just Another Smelly Hill?
A big part of the solid waste management business, in which players such as Waste Management, Republic Services, Progressive Waste and Casella Waste operate, is collection. Landfill management is obviously an important factor in signing waste volume contracts but the majority of these companies’ revenue generation comes from collection contracts with municipalities, companies, etc.
I think that their incentives go in the direction of increased waste volumes, but I agree that the waste-to-energy trend is definitely positive for everyone. As a result of waste-to-energy investments increasing, landfills are being emptied at a faster rate and the issue of rising collection volumes becomes less of an issue, which aligns with solid waste management companies’ incentives and creates a win-win situation for the environment and these companies.
Thanks, Bruna. You mentioned that WM should be educating consumers about the benefits of consumers more eco-friendly products. I think that responsibility should really lie with the product creators, not WM. Perhaps WM should work with the companies themselves to help them understand the benefits of creating eco-friendly products. Unfortunately, many consumers just don’t care about where their products end up once they dispose them, but I feel that the onus should be on the product creators to be more cognizant of the environmental impact of their creations.
Bruna, this article gave me a tremendous learning about waste management industry in the US. In Japan, methane-fermentation power generation became popular among local municipalities just a few years ago. However, the business model there has been heavily relying on subsidy from the central government. As you know, establishing power generator incurs investment, which is to be recouped through sale of power to the customer. Problem lies in that efficiency of power generation from methane-fermentation was often too low to stand economically viable by itself (in this regard, I am curious how the business model is economically viable in the US; combining recycle as an additional business was an interesting idea). Having said that, I have witnessed tons of demand for methane-fermentation not only in my country but in many other Asian countries (such as Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore) when I was engaged in sales activity in environmental products there. So especially with further technological improvement, I am optimistic that this business model will become more and more popular in emerging economies too in the coming years.
Great insights here, Bruna. I’ve always thought of biomass from farms as the primary fuel source for bioenergy. Landfills are indeed a great resource for biomass, as you’ve outlined. I understand that by scooping out methane from these landfills, we are removing a major GHG that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere. I thought it was important to note however that the combustion of a molecule of methane to produce energy also produces a molecule of CO2. The CO2e of methane is obviously higher in this comparison but we are still releasing GHGs to the atmosphere. Do you think that implementing carbon capture methods (can capture up to 90% CO2) at these mini power plants would be a good solution to further reduce atmospheric GHGs? The captured CO2 can be channeled back into the soil, an analogy to the process in which plants cleanup the air and supply us with oxygen.
Thanks for the insight Bruna. I agree that waste companies have a unique opportunity to further educate consumers on the benefits of waste separation (i.e. recycling, rubbish, compost). The friction I see with this is the way in which products are packaged and delivered to consumers. If I think of a typical lunch in Spangler – food is placed in biodegradable containers and then typically eaten with plastic cutlery. What often happens is that people will dispose of both the biodegradable container and plastic cutlery together, creating a mix of both compost and trash which will require future separation . It could be argued that the responsibility of “correct” rubbish disposal falls on the end consumer, but I think that suppliers can also play a part by making products designed for consumer, all inclusive (e.g. biodegradable drink with biodegradable straw included). This is not the strongest example but I think that we as consumers are falling short of our duty to separate rubbish effectively. As such, other mechanisms to incentivize correct disposal or reduce friction from the disposal process need to be examined.
Great post, and I relate very much to it having work in a waste-to-energy project.
Although very interesting, I don’t think that companies like WM can benefit from consumers being more conscious about their waste. Not considering companies integrated with collection that Sebastien already mentioned, companies whose business is only landfill and waste management get most of their benefits from the charge to users (generally municipalities or local governments in charge of waste recollection) of using the landfill to dispose their waste, and from energy generation. Income from recycling is the third part of their total revenues.
The path I would follow is implementing practices that are currently being used in Europe (world’s leader in WTE), where landfills play a very small role in the waste management industry, and they have been replaced by incineration plants (the other part is recycled) (1). Although incineration sounds bad at first, this is a special and controlled kind of incineration that is done without oxygen in order to avoid toxic emissions. This process has almost a 100% effectiveness, non-organic materials as separated to recycle (just like in landfills), the heat from the processes is used for electricity generation and the ashes that come out can be used in processes such as cement production. All of these is done in a controlled environment that has very low land utilization (just what is needed to fit the plant) compared to landfills that grow year by year, and that despite all measures taken such as impermeable geo-fabrics make that piece land unfit for future use.