CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Out of Sight, Out of Mind by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

... at a converted landfill called Renaissance Park in Charlotte, North Carolina, a soccer mom went after a stray ball that had fallen into an eroded hole around a light pole. To see in the shadows, she pulled out a pocket lighter. An exploding fireball blew her several feet back from the methane-filled hole. Fortunately, she suffered little more than minor burns and a bad case of the shakes. Signs discouraging open flames and smoking in all five of Charlotte's landfill parks were quickly posted.
At Play On A Field of Trash by Jessica Snyder Sachs

If a 175-pound man fell into one end, he would come out the other end as 38 pounds of oil, 7 pounds of gas, and 7 pounds of minerals, as well as 123 pounds of sterilized water.
CEO Brian Appel discussing the Thermal Depolymerization Process

I remember visiting my uncle's farm a long time ago and hearing him discussing a "business arrangement" with someone on the phone. It turns out, he had agreed to allow dumping of trash on a part of the farm that was unusable for growing anything. There was a large depression in the ground and it looked "perfect" for dumping trash. We were still there when the first truck tipped its load and trash went tumbling down into the gully. Every night they'd compact the trash by driving a front-loader on top of it and every once in awhile they'd throw a little dirt on top of it for good measure. I never did ask how much my uncle was getting paid for all of this but I can't imagine it was much. At the time, I didn't think a whole lot about what was going on, other than it didn't look like that good of an idea to me. I learned much later that this was typical of early landfill operations: throw trash in, cover it up with dirt, go away and forget about it.

Landfills have come along way since my first experience with them. Ten years ago I saw a video clip about "Mt. Trashmore" in Riverview Highlands, Michigan, outside of Detroit. I've since come to learn that there are many, many other Mt. Trashmores in the United States, most notably in the Virginia Beach, Virginia area. Wherever they are, they all generally have one thing in common and that is a huge heap of trash. In the case of Riverview Highlands, the city welcomed trash from many municipalities and built a ski resort and golf course on top of it, developers built million dollar homes around it and the landfill generated enough methane gas that it was profitable for the owners to collect it and sell it.

Unfortunately, all that glitters is not necessarily gold. All landfills produce methane gas and although collecting it and selling it sounds like a good idea, it isn't always done. And even if there is a system in place to collect the methane it doesn't always mean it's safe. Take for example, the open-air amphitheater in Mountain View, California that was built over a landfill; there was a system in place to collect the methane but that didn't stop the landfill from erupting in smoke during a Grateful Dead concert. Fortunately, no one was injured. Those that don't blow up still release methane, carbon dioxide and nitrogen as well as a number of other more noxious gases (benzene, toluene and vinyl chloride). The Environmental Protection Agency does require monitoring of landfills for these gases but in this age of budget cuts and downsizing, its difficult to know exactly what is happening.

Humans will always produce trash and as the population grows we'll produce more and more trash. It has to go somewhere and sending it to the landfill seems to be the most popular choice, but at what cost? We could incinerate the trash instead but then we'd still have to landfill the hazardous ash leftover from incineration. We'd also have to worry about production of toxic emissions from the incinerators. Wouldn't it be better if we could recycle all of the trash? Now we can. A company based in New York claims to be able to take just about any carbon-based waste that can be thrown at it and turn it into oil. Almost sounds too good to be true, but if it is true it's a first step toward being rid of landfills forever. And applied to landfills, "out of sight, out of mind" is a good thing.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of building public use facilities on top of landfills? Would you utilize such a facility?
  2. Find the nearest landfill to your home or school. How much trash is taken there on a daily basis? Does the landfill accept trash from municipalities that are out of the county or out of state?
  3. If you only had two choices for your trash, (1) putting it in a landfill or (2) incinerating it, which would you choose and why? Is one better than the other? What are the regulations for each?
  4. Find out more about the thermal depolymerization process. What would be the results of a conversion to treating trash via this process? Do some calculations to determine whether or not a large city would be able to furnish its energy needs from all of its trash.
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • At Play On A Field of Trash by Jessica Snyder Sachs
    This is a very informative article on the hazards of landfills and how they have changed over the years.
  • Anything Into Oil by Brad Lemley in May 2003 Discover Magazine
    This is an excellent article on a process called thermal depolymerization. The inventors of the process and the company bringing it to market claim it can convert anything into oil; very interesting.
  • Changing World Technologies
    Changing World Technologies' website explaining their mission, the thermal depolymerization process and much more.
  • The Landfill Controversy
    Some of the data, about when landfills in various states will be full, is a little outdated but the rest of the site is very informative; lots of good thought provoking scenarios are presented.
  • Shrinking A Landfill
    This interactive activity at asks you to try shrinking the amount of waste that a fictional community contributes to a landfill given a limited amount of money to do so; interesting and fun.
  • Freshkills: Landfill to Landscape
    Freshkills landfill on New York's Staten Island is one of the largest. This site describes the landfill and its history, as well as plans for future development. There is also an interactive map viewer to allow the user to visualize the landfill and its surroundings.
  • Anatomy of a Landfill
    Here you'll find a detailed description of a landfill from those who make them.
  • How Stuff Works: Landfills
    This is a great site with lots of good information, ranging from how much trash we produce to what happens to the trash after it's landfilled.
  • Municipal Solid Waste Disposal - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
    This is the United States Environmental Protection Agency's webpage for Municipal Solid Waste disposal, which includes information on landfilling and incineration.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003