Green Eyes On: What Really Happens in a Landfill


Photo via Flickr

Last week I visited one of the country's largest landfills, located just outside of Los Angeles. As I drove up the side of the mountain of God-knows-what, I was amazed at how much like driving into a state park it was. All around me trees were swaying in the breeze, flowers were blooming, and birds were chirping as they pulled worms from the vibrant green grass. It was like a movie set for the perfect suburban park. Except under that perfect-park facade was a mountain of s*&t;! How could something so nasty look so nice? That is, I wondered this until I neared the top of the mountain, where the winding road was suddenly gridlocked with overflowing dump trucks and an ominous flock of seagulls circled overhead. This is when I knew we had reached the real dump, the evidence of the 250-some million tons of trash Americans generate every year: that would be 4 pounds per person per day!
Photo courtesy of Sara Snow

Sure, I've seen dump trucks driving around on city streets. I've witnessed the toss and clump-clump of garbage men emptying can after can into their trucks. But I had never witnessed the mass dumping of these trucks into a would-be idyllic, peaceful mountaintop setting.

Since the 1960s the amount of trash in landfills has tripled. So what happens with all of this trash? Well, in the U.S. most of it is carefully maintained and contained in a landfill. Generally some of the recyclables are sorted out of the trash (either by you at home or sometimes on site via landfill mining), then the rest of the solid waste is dumped and, at the end of the day, covered with six inches of soil. The trash is isolated from our groundwater by a synthetic bottom liner and covered daily with a layer of fresh soil. Don't be mistaken: The soil is not used to create a veritable compost pile. It serves to keep the trash in its place and limit contact with the air we breathe and the rain that falls. In fact, not much decomposes in a landfill. At least not quickly.


Photo courtesy of Sara Snow

The lesson for me in leaving this dump (literally) was that landfills are unfortunately a necessary evil. But the amount of stuff we throw into them, can and should be curbed. If you're not recycling, do so. If you're not composting, please give it a try. By practicing these two simple things at home you can greatly reduce your amount of weekly trash. Beyond that, pay attention to the things you're buying and be intentional about weeding out the disposable products that you've become so fond of: paper plates, counter-top wipes, make-up remover face wipes these sort of things. Think about what your grandma used for each of those jobs and go back to that.

Here was the funniest moment of my visit to this particular landfill: As we were nearing closing time, I happened to glance just a handful of yards from where trucks were busy depositing the last of their trash and huge earth movers were covering the unsightly pile with dirt. There, just a short distance off, I saw three, maybe four men in orange ponchos, picking up trash.

They had the pointed sticks and the bags like you see along the side of the road or in any city park, and they were slowly but surely picking up the garbage. I went up to one of these unfortunate souls and asked just what he was doing. "Picking up trash," he said. "In a landfill?" I asked incredulously. "You've got a big job ahead of you." He sighed and agreed then continued on his way. But I do have to say that I was a little impressed. This landfill--again, one of the largest in the country--employs people to pick up errant trash lest it blow down the mountain of birds and trees and into someone's yard. And I vowed then and there to try to make this guy's job a little easier.

More From TreeHugger and PlanetGreen on Trash
Green Glossary: Landfill Gas
Landfill Mining, the Next Boom Industry?
Free Furniture From The Landfill! : Dumpster Diving
Landfill-Bound Garlic Salt is De-Icing Roads in Iowa
Sara Snow is a green living expert and regular contributor to TreeHugger via her Green Eyes On column. She can also be seen on CNN.com on Thursdays from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Her new DVD Growing Green Babies is now available through SaraSnow.com.

Tags: Activism | Environmental Footprint | Sara Snow | Waste | Zero Waste