For discarded materials that cannot be renewed, our modern disposal facilities are well-designed, well-run, and well-equipped to accept these items in an environmentally safe and secure manner.
Does a Resource Renewal Company Still Need Landfills?
As of Fiscal Year 2014, solid waste disposal is an important source of revenue for our company, and one of our near-term strategic goals is to get more tons into our landfills. Do these facts contradict our sustainability vision and strategy? We don't think so. Here's why:
Our customers need and expect integrated solutions.
They have businesses and households to run, and although we're all working together to figure out how to reduce, reuse, and recycle more, just about all of us still have waste to dispose. The simple reality is that our customers need disposal solutions to go along with their recycling solutions, and we can serve them best by offering both.
There are some materials that society just hasn't figured out how to recycle yet.
When most people think about waste, they picture household and business garbage. But much of the material coming into our landfills consists of industrial residuals, sludges, soils, and ashes that currently don't have a higher and better use. Until better solutions emerge for these types of materials, they need to be safely and securely disposed.
There are times when the protection of human health and the environment demands the availability of quick and reliable disposal options.
During natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, our communities rely upon us to manage large volumes of unrecyclable debris as part of the round-the-clock emergency effort to clear streets, repair infrastructure, and bring critical support services back to local citizens in need.
Some of our best closed loop solutions began as disposal streams coming into our landfills.
When a new disposal stream begins arriving at our facilities, it enters the crosshairs of our resource management specialists. We learn its consistency, production volumes, and handling needs. And, perhaps most importantly, we begin developing relationships with its generators. All of this sets us up to turn today's disposal stream into tomorrow's closed loop success story.
For each of these reasons, we know that we are much more than just a "waste company" and we sincerely believe that our strategic disposal goals are aligned with our broader resource renewal vision.
Growing numbers of our customers are actively working to achieve zero waste. With a deep commitment to waste reduction and recycling, these customers are drastically reducing the discards that they need to dispose. Still, these customers and others continue to call upon us to provide safe, secure, and affordable disposal options with the smallest possible environmental footprint.
We design, build, and operate our landfills to minimize the impact of solid waste on the local and global environment. Our landfills adhere to best management practices, such as:
Screening incoming loads to ensure that only acceptable solid waste is placed in our landfills.
Using double liner systems to capture leachate (the moisture that percolates out of the waste mass) so that it can be properly treated.
Optimizing waste compaction rates so we can use existing landfill space as efficiently as possible.
Installing landfill gas collection systems to capture and control air emissions.
All of our disposal facilities have begun working to exceed regulatory standards and industry practices as part of our Low Emission Landfill initiative. This effort consists of developing a series of best practices designed to optimize landfill gas capture and enhance environmental performance, including:
Commencing gas collection early by operating horizontal gas collectors in active cells.
Using low permeability soils and/or geomembrane cap to enhance gas capture in intermediate cover areas.
Monitoring and tuning the well-field more frequently to ensure optimal gas collection.
Developing landfill gas to energy projects to capture energy value from discarded materials. Six of our landfills now capture gas for electricity production.
As a result of our Low Emission Landfill efforts, our companywide average landfill gas capture efficiency (according to EPA Part 98 calculations) in 2013 was 84.5%, well above the widely-cited industry average of 75%. This directly benefits our emission rate, which is significantly lower than that of other disposal facilities in our region, as described on the adjoining page.
As landfill operators, we must continuously adapt to an evolving field. New technologies emerge, regulations change, and we see variability in the mix of waste types that arrive at our gates. These changes have important implications for our engineering decisions, operating practices, staffing levels, and general facility management. As a company, we are committed to finding effective ways to manage the engineering and environmental challenges at our landfills. To this end, we are working to improve our landfill data management systems to support more data-driven strategic decision-making and proactive environmental management. We will report more on this initiative in our next report.
We see our Low Emission Landfill initiative as a pathway to continuous improvement, and we know our journey is far from complete. In the coming months and years we will work to continue advancing our operating practices to further enhance our gas capture and recovery rates.
Landfill Gas-to-Energy Production
Solid waste in the landfill decomposes and produces methane gas.
Methane gas captured via wells drilled into the landfill and is piped to the gas-to-energy facility.
Our landfills produced 227,000* MWh last year
The gas is used as fuel for the engines that generate electricity, which is then delivered out the grid.
That's enough power to provide electricity for over 30,000 households in the Northeast!
* This includes all electricity produced by us and our partners at Casella-operated landfills.
Zero Waste or Zero Landfill?
Some promote a Zero Landfill approach which doesn't necessarily maximize diversion through reuse, recycling, or other forms of recovery. Others support a more ambitious Zero Waste concept that envisions the elimination of all waste. To better understand the distinctions between Zero Waste and Zero Landfill, it helps to de-bunk a few myths:
Waste-to-Energy is Better for the Climate
Most people don't realize that greenhouse gas (or carbon) emission rates vary tremendously among disposal sites, and it's simply not possible to say that one type of facility is always better than the other. Figure 2 shows that, in the northeastern U.S., the average landfill emits less greenhouse gas than the average waste-to-energy facility, and that emissions from Casella landfills are lower still.
EPA Ranks Waste-to-Energy above Landfilling
The EPA used to advocate a waste hierarchy that ranked waste-to-energy incineration above landfilling. This dates back to the late 1980s when landfill gas collection was uncommon, and few landfills captured landfill gas for energy. In 2012, based on modern operating practices and data, EPA revised its waste hierarchy to the one shown in Figure 31. The hierarchy no longer places wasteto- energy above landfilling, but instead lists "Energy Recovery" above "Treatment & Disposal". In this manner, a landfill with energy recovery is ranked in the same tier as an incinerator with energy recovery.
Waste-to-Energy is a type of Recycling
EPA's waste hierarchy reminds us that source reduction and recycling should always be our highest priorities. Facilities that pursue Zero Landfill through incineration can undermine recycling and related diversion opportunities. For example, Waste-to-Energy facilities have no incentive to find solutions for hard-to-recycle plastics, because plastic is a key ingredient in incineration power production. But plastic is a petroleumbased product; when combusted for energy, it is a fossil fuel. From a climate perspective, there is no question: true recycling means getting those carbon molecules into new products, not combusting them to raise carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere.
Zero Waste challenges us to keep working until all of the materials we manage are out of the disposal stream. As a society, we could settle for Zero Landfill, but if we're serious about protecting the climate, closing resource loops, and achieving true sustainability, we have to set the higher standard: Zero Waste.
2012 Greenhouse Gas Emission Rates from Large Disposal Facilities in the Northeast
(kgC02 per ton waste disposed)
EPA data show that, in the northeast, incinerators emit more greenhouse gas per ton than landfills do, even after accounting for energy production.
U.S. EPA Waste Management Hierarchy
EPA updated their waste management hierarchy to clarify that waste-to-energy incineration is not ranked above landfill gas to energy.
Learn more about our Sustainability Initiatives
Capturing value from waste through innovative resource solutions.
Our comprehensive Resource Solutions enable us to apply our knowledge and experience in recycling, collection, organics, energy and landfills to create economic and environmental value for our customers and our communities. Click here to download the PDF version of our 2014 Sustainability Report