Landfills and Biodegradability

No other issue has caused as much confusion as biodegradability (or degradability).

For some reason, popular culture has led many to believe that burying our nation’s garbage in landfills is sort of like creating big compost heaps—eventually, all that stuff will just go away and we can reuse that space for something else, right?

Well…let’s rethink what landfills actually do. First, let’s start with the name: Landfill. Land. Fill. A large plot of land is filled with our community’s waste (except construction debris and hazardous materials). Once filled, the space is covered and often utilized as an airport, a park or for another public function.

Important point: Landfill operators are not concerned about non-biodegradable stuff. While some initial degradation of food and similar wastes does occur, the garbage essentially is entombed without the air, water and sunlight necessary to support the biological processes that help break down materials. Modern landfills actually are designed to minimize the breakdown of waste, so contrary to popular public belief, most garbage does not readily biodegrade in them. Scientists have uncovered copies of National Geographic, legible newspapers and even intact whole carrots that have been buried in municipal landfills for decades. Landfill ≠ compost.

But as noted, landfills do fill up, and it’s expensive to haul and dispose of waste. So what actually is filling up landfills? The number one material is paper products at 31%, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And what about all those plastic foodservice products that we use every day? About 1%.

Regardless, we all should do our part to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as possible to keep products out of the waste stream and to prevent litter.


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