Since America's first landfill began operation back in 1937 in Fresno, California, landfills have been one of America's biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Landfill gas (LFG) is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material in landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, LFG is composed of roughly 50 percent methane (CH4) and 50 percent carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane and carbon dioxide also just happen to be the two biggest offenders of Earth's worsening greenhouse effect after water vapor.
Carbon Dioxide alone accounted for nearly 80 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 with 5981 million metric tons. Methane, however, is still arguable far more dangerous. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report, CH4 is now estimated to be between 28 and 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period.
That's not to say America has just been sitting back at letting it happen this entire time. The revolutionary Clean Air Act enforced by the EPA was passed in 1963 and over the years has been amended multiple times to continue fighting back against pollutants impacting the atmosphere. Possibly among the most impactful amendments were the regulations eventually added requiring landfills of a certain size to capture and collect the LFG it produced.
For a while, EPA compliance meant much of this collected LFG was routed to flares which burned off most of the gas but over time more techniques were developed to utilize the gas for energy.
As of March 2022, the organization oversaw 541 separate LFG recycling energy projects across the country. Electricity generation accounted for nearly 69 percent of these projects with LFG also being used as a substitute for fossil fuels in many of them. Even more projects see the gas being treated and turned into Renewable Natural Gas.
Landfills still fight a never ending battle against migrating odor and smog affecting their local communities but for decades they were a ticking time bomb, literally in many instances. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, the pressure generated over years of continually compacted municipal waste which continued generating flammable methane gas was an actual explosive hazard for many communities before the Clean Air Act regulation kicked in. All of these concerns were also compounded by the realization landfills can continue to generate significant amounts of LFG for an estimated 30 years after ceasing operations.
Now, thanks to the Clean Air Act regulations which were again updated in 2016, many landfill operations have gone from primarily hazard mitigation to energy generation projects and those extra 30 years have become an extended production window instead of a concern.
The concern is of course still there as emissions continue to be a hot topic around climate change but it is worth noting CO2 emissions nationwide have dropped 8 percent from 1990 to 2020 and in November 2021 the White House published US President Biden's US Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan. The plan claims moving to a net zero energy economy would created 30 million jobs globally and the EPA reports enforced regulations from the Clean Air Act have saved trillions of dollars and crucially 1000s of lives each year.
Landfills should not expect a loosening, but a tightening of regulations to meet EPA compliance in the future as the world continues to become more environmentally minded and savvy to the effects of greenhouse gas. Consequently, they should be even more mindful of the opportunities presented through LFG collection and how it is already evolving energy production in the US.