When many advisors and their clients get together these days, topic number one is energy. Retirees are concerned that escalating costs for gasoline and electricity will force them to make adjustments to their lifestyles in their golden years. Other clients want to know what energy investments are likely to offer the strongest, and safest, returns. They’re also concerned about the impact of runaway energy costs on every other sector of the global economy.
At the same time, when we talk about the environment or virtually any “green” topic, the discussion always veers back to energy–how much is being used, what kind, what results from carbon emissions, and how much does going green cost, among other issues.
Although dealing with our energy needs is the crux of the problem, there are really a host of interrelated issues involved in the green world. Among them is the question of waste and what to do with it. It turns out that recycling is only the beginning.
Although some people approach recycling programs with evangelic fervor and others only do it because their municipality forces them to recycle, it’s rare today to find anyone who doesn’t recycle to some degree. Yet despite massive public and private recycling efforts to reuse paper, plastic, and metal, or the efforts of food banks and charitable programs like City Harvest in New York–which rescues an estimated 20 million pounds of excess food every year from restaurants, manufacturers, wholesalers, greenmarkets, hotels, corporate cafeterias, grocery stores, and farms to help feed the hungry–we still produce a lot of waste.
According to figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans produced 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day in 2000, for an annual total of 232 million tons of municipal solid waste. That’s up significantly since 1960 when per capita waste production was 2.7 lbs. when with a smaller population the annual total was a mere 88.1 million tons.
That’s a lot of garbage, most of which winds up in landfills. Contrary to urban myth, landfills are not mostly filled with fast food containers, disposable diapers, and old washing machines, although those things can certainly be found there, as can all kinds of paper, household goods, containers, food scraps, yard waste, and inorganic waste. Not to mention sludge from water and wastewater treatment facilities, septic tanks, construction and demolition debris, medical waste, slaughterhouse waste, grease, and grit trap waste. (For a fascinating study of what happens to all our stuff after we’re done with it, I highly recommend Rubbish, the Archaeology of Garbage, by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, University of Arizona Press, 2001.)
There’s Gas in Them Hills
It turns out that all that rubbish isn’t just sitting there underground doing nothing. It’s turning some of the organic matter in that landfill into energy.
After a landfill closes and is planted over with grass and shrubs the refuse buried beneath it slowly decomposes, producing methane and other gases. Unless captured first by a gas recovery system, methane generated by the landfill is emitted when it migrates through the landfill cover. During this process, the soil oxidizes approximately 10% of the methane generated, and the remaining 90% is emitted.
If that methane is not captured it can build to the point where it causes an explosion and escapes or, more likely, it will gradually migrate through the layers of the landfill, which oxidizes about 10% of the methane with the remaining 90% finding its way into the atmosphere. According to a recent New York Times article, landfill methane is “at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas.” The same article cites EPA estimates that landfills account for 25% of all methane releases linked to human activity.