The Next Step To Combating Climate Change Could Be Found In America's Landfills

Sometimes, clean solutions can be found in surprisingly dirty places.

The average American throws five pounds of trash a day into landfills, according to a 2015 Yale study, partially funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and published in the Nature Climate Change journal. In 2013, that added up to 294 million tons. That's a lot of trash, but there's one amazing thing we can do with it: convert it to biogas.  

Biogas isn't just something your dad makes after having an especially fiber-ful dinner. It's actually a clean, easily controlled source of renewable energy made from organic waste materials. Imagine all the trash you'd find in a landfill transformed into the treasured fuel known as biomethane. 

"A portion of what landfills take as waste is organic waste, and that organic waste naturally decomposes and produces methane. Methane is the same component as natural gas and so, I think people are interested in it because we are generating a fuel source as we provide a service for waste disposal," Paul Pabor, vice president of renewable energy for Waste Management told A Plus in a phone call. "It's an opportunity to make use of that renewable fuel source." 

Because the waste is covered and compressed mechanically by the weight of the material deposited from above, it works exactly like an anaerobic digester, according to Pabor. The gas produced by the landfill builds up and is slowly released into the atmosphere. Most landfills have gas collection systems, though not all of them funnel it into a gas utilization project. When that does happen, however, it is then processed to remove impurities and becomes biomethane. Also called renewable natural gas or RNG, it's a "pipeline quality" natural gas that can easily replace fossil fuels as a sustainable carbon neutral fuel option to power vehicles. 

Waste Management has been capturing landfill gas since the late 1980s, first using it to produce electricity. Renewable energy plants that convert landfill gas into renewable natural gas later hit the scene in the early 1990s. "We bought one of these plants in 2010. Then we built our own plant in 2015, and we're building another one now that should go online early next year," Pabor said. "…It's an opportunity to take the methane that we're producing from our landfills and turn around and offset what natural gas we're using in our compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks." That helps companies like Waste Management operate in the most self-sufficient and sustainable way possible.

  Photo by Petovarga I Shutterstock

All this progress is pretty great for the planet because using biogas to power engines and vehicles that just a few years ago relied on fossil fuel reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. "Every gallon that's produced helps reduce the fossil fuel use within the country," Pabor said. 

Biomethane produces less GHG than the fossil fuels it replaces but, just like naturally occuring methane emissions, biomethane is converted to CO2 during combustion. With cleaner fuel producing cleaner air, we can all breathe a little easier. 


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