The Treasure of Diverted Trash

An earth mover buries waste at the Clinton Landfill near Clinton, Illinois.

This summer’s dialogue on greenhouse gas emissions, or GHGs, has focused largely on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which regulates CO2 emissions for power plants under Section 111D of the Clean Air Act. This section of the law has also spurred measures to reduce significant sources of other GHGs, including the regulation of methane in municipal landfills.

Landfills are a significant source of heat-trapping GHGs in the United States. They are the nation’s third-largest source of methane emissions, producing 18 percent of that pollutant. Since methane has 34 times more global warming potential than CO2, and since landfill size is only increasing, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, must take action on this issue. On September 15, it closed the comment period on its proposed emissions standards for new landfills, as well as for an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking for existing landfills. These steps signal the EPA’s progress on mitigating methane emissions. As the EPA continues this process, it should seek opportunities to cut landfill emissions in the simplest way: reducing landfill use and the need for new landfills altogether. This will help mitigate the impact of landfills on climate change, while also yielding economic benefits in the form of higher property values and job opportunities.

Current state of methane emissions

Reducing methane emissions is part of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which calls on the EPA to update emissions standards for new landfills. The EPA is currently considering comments on emissions from new landfills and is also developing proposed emissions rules for existing landfills. Furthermore, it is determining whether to take regulatory action under the Clean Air Act—thereby requiring mandatory compliance—or whether to issue recommended guidance for methane emissions control instead. Guidance would not require mandatory action.

Currently, the EPA’s landfill strategy aims to capture methane and to prevent it from being released after the landfill is closed through capping, venting, and flaring. But the technology used to accomplish this is not 100 percent effective, as closed and capped landfills still leak methane gas. Indeed, methods to capture methane from landfills are only 62 percent successful; the EPA’s recommended target for methane capture is 75 percent. Still, this approach has yielded some climate benefits. Between 1990 and 2012, methane emissions from landfills declined from 147.76 million to 102.83 million metric tons of carbon equivalents, a 30.4 percent decline. While this is good news, the proposed rule should go further by adopting policies that encourage the diversion of waste from landfills to prevent methane leakage at the beginning of the waste stream.

Methane reduction as an economic strategy

Reducing the use of landfills could also have economic and environmental benefits. For example, preventing the need to build new landfills preserves property values: Properties adjacent to a landfill experience average value decreases of 13.7 percent for high-volume landfills and 2.7 percent for lower-volume landfills. Beyond this benefit, reduced landfill demand would mean that cities and states would not need to hunt for landfill space. The number of available landfills shrunk from approximately 8,000 in 1988 to 1,750 in 2006. As a result of reducing landfill use, municipalities can avoid hauling garbage farther away and decrease pollution, transportation costs, and congestion.

Maryland has already recognized the economic benefits of reducing methane emissions from landfills and has announced a goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2040. According to research from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, greater implementation and expansion of Maryland’s composting system has the potential to create 4,100 jobs statewide. For every 10,000 tons of compostable waste that is sent to composting facilities, there is demand for 4.1 full-time jobs, compared with 2.1 jobs at landfills and 1.2 jobs at incineration plants. Nationwide, if states commit to 75 percent waste diversion by 2030, the United States could benefit from nearly 1.5 million new jobs, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Strategies to reduce landfill methane emissions

The EPA’s proposed landfill emissions measures could be strengthened by other strategies to help reduce the United States’ methane footprint. Such strategies should focus on reducing the amount of organic waste, which is defined as food waste, paper products, yard trimmings, and wood wastes. Forty-nine percent of all organic waste ends up in landfills; it is the primary source of methane emitted by landfills. This means that nearly half of the garbage in this country can be diverted through measures such as improving and expanding recycling programs; generating energy from waste through incineration and biofuels; and reducing food waste, the largest contributor of methane emissions from landfills.

Improving and expanding recycling programs

Bolstering traditional recycling programs is crucial to prevent methane emissions from waste. As of 2012, standard recyclables—paper, glass, metals, and plastics—still made up 46.5 percent of all municipal solid waste, or MSW, discards. These materials contribute greatly to the 53.8 percent of all waste that goes to landfills. A lackluster national recycling approach means that the United States is forgoing crucial advancements to its national climate change strategy, as well as economic savings. The United States can do more, especially compared with European countries such as Denmark, which sends only 3 percent of its waste to landfills, and Germany, which sends no waste to landfills. Recycling improvements are directly related to the EPA’s proposed standards to reduce methane emissions, since paper products—which comprise 27.4 percent of MSW—contributed 42.7 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2006 after they ended up in landfills. The EPA called for input on the scope of revised emissions guidance and should include technical support for recycling infrastructure and program enhancement in its final release.

Generating energy through incineration and biofuels

There are also opportunities to manage waste through energy-generating incineration. Nationwide, 24 states have opted for waste-to-energy, or WTE, plants to manage a portion of their municipal solid waste. Cities especially benefit from adopting this management practice, as they generate the highest volumes of waste but have limited land on which to build new landfills. One benefit is the capacity to accept more waste over longer periods of time, reducing the need for new landfills. Additional benefits include shorter transportation distances and preventing the creation of methane gas. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that WTE “[provides] significant renewable energy benefits and fossil fuel offsets.” The necessary technologies are improving, which led to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent decision to issue loan guarantees to Fulcrum Sierra Biofuels, LLC, to convert MSW into biodiesel jet fuel. Instead of heading to landfills, MSW now has the potential to power American planes.

Reducing food waste

According to the EPA, 14.5 percent of all MSW in the United States comes from food waste. The decomposition of food waste contributes 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions from landfills. The EPA currently recommends reducing food waste by methods such as limiting overproduction and redirecting unconsumed food to those in need, as well as composting food scraps, but several cities have taken additional steps. San Francisco made food-waste composting mandatory in 2009 and has since reached 80 percent waste diversion and is on its way to achieving zero waste going into landfills by 2020. The Austin, Texas, city council set a goal of reducing its waste stream 90 percent by 2040 through measures that include food-waste composting. The program currently reaches 14,000 households—with plans to expand to thousands more—and has the potential to be an income-generating tool. Already, sales of soil amendment, or composted dirt, made from yard clippings generated $267,000 during fiscal year 2013 for the city, again demonstrating that preventing harmful methane emissions is an economic opportunity. The EPA can encourage more widespread organic waste composting by allowing exemptions for additional methane capture infrastructure for existing landfills that divert 100 percent of organic waste.


The EPA now has until January 2015 to release its proposed emissions standards rule for existing landfills, as well as a final rule for new landfills. Both are opportunities to chart a more sustainable path for waste management. Rather than focusing on maintaining the status quo, the EPA should bolster ambitious and proven alternatives that mitigate climate change. Reducing municipal solid waste at the source through recycling, waste-to-energy products, and food-waste diversion accomplishes the EPA’s environmental goals, increases economic opportunity, and will sustain greater methane emissions reductions in the years and decades to come.

Danielle Baussan is Managing Director of Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Erin Auel is a Special Assistant at the Center.