Landfills Belch Climate-Warming Methane. Even the EPA Doesn’t Know How Much.

It’s easy to forget about garbage. It’s easy to forget about garbage. Thanks to some of the most hardworking people, it disappears. But garbage continues impacting us — and the planet — long after it leaves our dumpsters. If all of our garbage is thrown in a landfill, it can become a serious source for climate-warming pollution.

Municipal solid waste landfills are the nation’s largest source of methane emitted by human sources after fossil fuels and agriculture, accordingTo the Environmental Protection Agency. We send our garbage to up to 2,000 dumps across the country.

Over a 20 year period, methane has reached a maximum of 84 times more powerfulMore than carbon dioxide in terms heat trapping in the atmosphere

The United States and the European Union were both present at the COP26 climate summit. led 100 countriesBy signing a pledge that methane emissions will be reduced by 30% in the next decade Trapping methane from landfills could help the U.S. keep its word, environmentalists say, but there’s a big problem: We don’t actually know how much methane and other pollutants are being belched by landfills into the atmosphere in the first place.

According to the EPA in 2019, municipal landfills accounted 15 percent of U.S. Methane emissions. This is approximately equivalent to the greenhouse gases emitted by 21.6 million cars per year. Ryan Maher, Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), said that air pollution from most landfills can’t be measured at source and that these figures are based only on an estimate of emissions that the EPA hasn’t updated in 20 years.

“That bad stuff is getting out, but I think we need to figure out how much is getting out as the first step to managing it,” Maher said in an interview.

Anaerobic bacteria can begin to decompose food waste and other organic materials within one year of trash entering a landfill. They also produce methane. They also produce other pollutants like the greenhouse gas Nitrous oxide and volatile Organic Compounds, which can be dangerous to human health.

Maher stated that technology such as drones or satellite imaging can be used to measure pollution from landfills, but that tracking emissions is expensive. Federal law requires large emitters to install gas collection system. Some landfills even trap methane for electricity generation. However, more accurate data could force more landfills into investing in pollution controls. This is something the industry is not willing to do.

EPA’s current model for estimating landfill emissions is sorely outdated, Maher said, and is probably underestimating the amount of methane and other pollutants entering the air. That means that the industry has fewer federal and state regulations.

“It’s the EPA’s methods that decide whether gas control is necessary under those regulations,” Maher said, referring to pollution controls that suck gas from trash heaps through a network of pipes. “We think updating the methods will result in higher emissions estimates, which will result in more pollution controls under the EPA’s federal regulations.”

The EPA reviewed its methods of estimating the three landfill gases it is required by federal law to track in 2008. The model is based upon methane emissions which is another good way to gauge climate impact. However, the agency concluded that most pollutants had been underestimated by 25%. accordingEIP and other environmental organizations filed a complaint Thursday.

The EPA had proposed an update to its emissions model in 2009. However, it was not implemented or finalized, the groups stated. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to review the model and consider updating it every three years. However, that review was not completed by the Trump administration. The groups decided to sue the agency in an attempt to force it to take action. A spokeswoman from the EPA stated that the agency does not comment about pending litigation.

“The EPA model is basically showing state regulators and the public which facilities are of most concern, and just where landfills fall generally as emitters of various compounds, and how they compare to other industries,” Maher said.

An EIP analysis last year found that 19 landfills in Maryland had produced emissions. four times higher than the official state estimate, and Maher believes a reworking of the EPA’s methods would yield similar results nationwide. He said that scientific studies on landfills also showed a gap between EPA estimates of actual emissions and actual emissions. More accurate modeling would help policymakers make climate policy decisions.

The EPA is joined by a handful of state or local governments that keep the environment clean. greenhouse gas inventories,The data is used to track climate change contributions. Measuring methane levels could encourage lawmakers and regulators to push for pollution controls that would help the nation meet its emission targets.

Local communities would also be able to have better data to hold operators accountable for the pollution from landfills. majority of whichThey are close to communities of color and neighborhoods with lower incomes.