Stories tagged landfill

Jul
15
2010

“…Welcome back, class. Please hand in your essays on the scientific fundamentals of phosphorus-driven eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico, and note that our exam covering chapter eight, the Biogeochemistry of Acid Mine Drainage, will take place next Tuesday. Today we will be covering fluid bed catalytic oxidation, hazardous waste landfill leachates, and NIMBY. But, first, let’s take attendance: Bueller?... Bueller?... Bueller??”

Say what? “Nimby?” Girl, puh-lease! He just made that up… didn’t he??

It wasn’t long into my undergraduate stint as an Environmental Science major that I came across the word, “nimby.” Actually, it’s not a word at all. It’s an acronym, N.I.M.B.Y., standing for “Not In My BackYard,” that captures an important public attitude that affects environmental policymaking.

NIMBY explains many people’s attitude towards environmental policies, capturing sentiments like,

“That’s such a cool and important idea! As long as it’s not actually happening in my community, that is.”

“Whatever. I don’t care so long as I don’t have to see it everyday.”

NIMBY: Yuck.  Who wants to look out their bedroom window and see a mountain of trash?  Not these guys.
NIMBY: Yuck. Who wants to look out their bedroom window and see a mountain of trash? Not these guys.Courtesy The Voice of Eye

Think About It

Do you like having your trash removed from your home? Most everyone does. But, would you like having a landfill in your backyard? Almost nobody does. This is the classic example of NIMBY. Nearly everyone likes having their trash collected from their property and transported out of sight and smell, yet someone, somewhere has to live beside a mountain of trash. As long as we’re not the ones living across the street from the landfill, most of us are satisfied with this method of garbage disposal. The same idea goes for wastewater treatment facilities as well.

Another classic example is nuclear power. Some people support nuclear power as an inexpensive and “clean” alternative to fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. However, the construction, maintenance, and decommissioning of a nuclear power plant poses risks and creates radioactive waste. Whether or not you think the risks and waste production are acceptable consequences depends largely on your proximity to the plant and/or ultimate disposal site for the nuclear waste.

A recent example of NIMBY is occurring in California this summer as covered in Green, a New York Times blog. In a valley near Santa Clara, Martifer Renewables canceled their plan to build a hybrid solar power plant. Set on 640 acres of agricultural land, the plant was supposed to produce electricity by solar power during the day and biomass burning by night. How sweet is that?? A 24-hour source of renewable energy! The California utility PG&E thought it was a great idea too and signed a 20-year power purchase agreement for 106.8 megawatts, which became part of their energy portfolio. PG&E must obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable resources by December of this year and another 13% (for 33% total) by 2020, as mandated by California state energy goals. Now that the project is canceled, PG&E will have to look elsewhere for sources of renewable electricity or risk missing their mandated targets.

Regarding the canceled project, Martifer executive, Miguel Lobo, wrote in a June 17th letter that,

“We were not able at this time to resolve some of our issues regarding project economics and biomass supply amongst other things.”

What Lobo was likely referring to are the complaints of local residents and regulators who contested several aspects of the project. Chief amongst the complaints was the around-the-clock operation made possible by burning biomass. What exactly were they so excited about? Noise, waste, and air pollution – all realities of energy production, yet things we’d rather not experience ourselves. In short, NIMBY.

Alright, so what?

Now that I’ve opened your eyes to the existence of NIMBY, you might be wondering how it influences environmental policymaking. The easiest answer is that environmental policymakers seek to find a balance between the conflicting desires for new technology like this power plant and local opposition and the NIMBY attitude. Often both sides make compromises and projects move forward on a slightly different path than previously proposed. However, as in the California case of Martifer Renewables, occasionally a project is completely scrapped. Other times, the project proceeds as originally planned. Which of the outcomes occurs depends largely on the organization and influence of the local opposition. In turn, this often raises issues of environmental or eco-justice.

Clearly our modern society cannot exist without landfills or wastewater treatment facilities as smelly and unsightly as they may be. Whether or not nuclear or other renewable energy power plants are equally necessary today is debatable, but it’s not hard to imagine a future in which they will be. If no one agreed to have these facilities in their community, life as we know it would be very different. This begs the question: how do you think policymakers should balance the needs of society at large against the NIMBY attitude of locals?

Aug
12
2005

Is that a contradiction in terms?

Approximately 330 million tons of garbage filled landfills in the United States last year alone, according to Solid Waste Digest, a trade publication for the waste industry. However, remarkably, the capacity of these landfills has been increasing even though very few new dumps are being built. How is this possible?

It turns out that landfill managers have been using methods that allow them to pack more trash into a landfill then what was previously thought possible. Some landfills pile tons of dirt on top of sections of their dumps and then six months later scrape the dirt aside. Like stomping your foot into the waste bin to make more room, this system works to create 30 to 40 more feet of depth — more space for more trash.

Other methods to increase landfill capacity include blowing water and air into the dumps to quicken decomposition and therefore reducing the size of buried garbage. Or, they are using other methods, such as giant 59-ton compacting machines, to bury trash more tightly.

The good news here is that this efficiency will help to reduce the need for new landfills. The bad news is, again, the United States produces 330 million tons of garbage a year! New York City produces so much garbage that it exports 25,000 tons of trash every day to other states and other cities.

So, while I think this new efficiency is great, I also think that we (you and I) still play a significant role in reducing the amount of trash put into landfills. Reduce, reuse, recycle!

Mar
03
2005

With all the doom-and-gloom stories in the news about how we might soon run out of space in landfills and fossil fuels, it's nice to read about an innovation that uses landfills to provide energy.

Methane forms when organic waste decomposes in the absence of oxygen, as in landfills. At a few landfills, the methane is collected and used to power vehicles or to heat nearby buildings. But most of it goes to waste. Landfill operators burn it off to prevent dangerous build-ups of the flammable gas. Burning off the methane not only wastes the potential fuel, but it also pumps pollutants into the atmosphere. In Europe alone, landfills have the potential to generate as much as 94 billion cubic meters of methane per year.

Why don't we use the methane from more landfills? Well, people usually extract it by sinking pipes into the landfill and sucking the gas out. But if the landfill isn't airtight, sucking out the methane also sucks in air. The oxygen is not only difficult to separate from the methane, but it also slows down methane production inside the landfill. So, until now, the only landfills where methane extraction has been viable have been those large and deep enough to restrict the entry of air.

But Viktor Popov, at the Wessex Institute of Technology, has figured out some simple modifications that allow methane extraction from any landfill. His solution is to cover the landfill with a membrane that prevents air from getting in. The membrane consists of three layers: a middle, permeable layer sandwiched between two mostly impermeable layers. Popov continuously pumps carbon dioxide (which can itself be extracted from the gasses in the landfill) into the middle layer so that the CO2 is slightly above atmospheric pressure. This creates a barrier that prevents air being drawn into the landfill—as the methane is sucked out of the ground, CO2 gets sucked into it from the membrane.

You can see a diagram of how this works

A landfill can continue to be a source of energy long after it's closed to new garbage. Decomposition can keep going underground, producing methane, for 15 to 20 years.

Are you interested in new sources of energy? Would you be willing to pay more for "green energy" if the option were available to you?