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Landfills: A History of Waste Disposal

Garbage and Recycling
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Landfills are the old form of waste treatment and are used in many places around the world. Since the advent of agriculture, humans have had to deal with garbage disposal. Yesterday's dump was a pit or hill on the outskirts of town that played host to disease-carrying rodents, insects, and dangerous objects. Before the advent of modern landfills, Americans also burned their garbage. Due to environmental safety concerns, most municipalities have banned unregulated garbage dumps and burning due to the contamination of groundwater supplies, streams, and airways.

Landfills are now the only sanctioned garbage disposal sites for most municipalities, and only qualified personnel are allowed to bury or burn waste. Most people see the end of household garbage when they leave it on the curbside for the garbage haulers. When garbage is taken away, it is routed to the landfill where it becomes part of the unending cycle of waste disposal.

Once the garbage truck finishes a route, it arrives at a collection site or landfill where it is weighed and inspected for content. At the landfill, garbage is unloaded onto the tipping face and compacted by bulldozers and other machinery. Each day's garbage is referred to as a cell, and when a cell is filled, soil, foam spray, wood chips, and/or temporary blankets are used to cover the area. This covering keeps rain and wind from dispersing the garbage and controls insects, birds, and rodents. Once a landfill section is capped, the area is planted with grasses.

Modern landfills are located in areas where clay deposits and/or other natural features can buffer the environment from contamination. Landfills are required to use liners made of plastic, clay, or other non-porous materials to keep garbage from leaking into the soil. Landfill operators employ a system of drainage pipes to route any liquid waste (leachate) into nearby ponds or wells where it is tested and treated. Groundwater around landfill sites is quality tested for many years after a landfill is full. To ensure safety, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed strict regulations governing the operation of landfills to ensure the prevention of leachate breaks and methane leaks.

Garbage in landfills does not break down - a landfill is more like an airtight storage container. Even biodegradable items such as grass clippings and paper break down very slowly in a traditional landfill, making the space unrenewable. Though landfills cannot be used over and over, they are often put to good use. Closed landfills are turned into parks, golf courses, ski slopes, and parks. Homes and other buildings are not usually built on closed landfills due to settling.

Newer types of landfills, called a bioreactor, use leachate and/or air to create biodegrading inside the landfill. In these types of landfills, leachate is used on site and does not require disposal. Bioreactors are able to store much more garbage, due to biodegrading, than traditional landfills. Another benefit to bioreactors is the production of methane gas from the decomposition of organic waste. Methane has similar properties to natural gas and can be used as an energy source for fuel or by burning to generate steam and electricity.

55 percent of all refuse is stored in landfills. 14 percent is burned, and 31 percent is recycled. The EPA recommends recycling to save natural resources, protect the environment, and decrease the need for landfills. Encourage recycling by keeping bins handy in the home and avoid throwing hazardous waste in the garbage. Hazardous household waste (medications, chemicals, automotive supplies, fertilizers, insect/rodent killers, etc.) should only be disposed of according to instructions or taken to a government-sponsored hazardous waste disposal facility or event.

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