Adapting to the landfills of the future

Imagine a world with zero waste where every single product and component that is discarded is either reused, recycled or refurbished and no contaminated residue reaches our waterways ensuring clean and clear water. At the core of this futuristic world is the concept of ‘hyper-circularity’. A hyper circular product is one that can be infinitely recyclable and need not be disposed. Plastics are most widely used for packaging and one good example of a circular product is using biodegradable packaging products from seaweed and plants as an alternative to plastics that do not end up as garbage.

This brings us to an important question, how is the world treating all our garbage and trash today? Majority of the trash finds its way into landfills and by 2050 it is estimated our waterways will have more plastic than fish. In India, majority of municipal solid waste ends up in landfills and municipal landfills are the third-largest source of human-made toxic methane gas in the country. 

Leachate into water:

Contamination of both surface as well as ground water due to human activities is a global challenge and landfill liquid discharge (called leachate) that percolates through disposal sites causes significant damage. Majority of the municipal landfills have been garbage dumps without any waste segregation methods and un-monitored leachate from landfills have contaminated ground aquifers degrading groundwater with high chemical compositions of sodium, chloride, sulphates, nitrates, heavy metals and ammonia to name a few.

In the news recently was the beautiful bio-diversity of the Aravallis range of North India polluted by leachate from the landfills of Gurugram and Faridabad. The landfill was setup on an abandoned mining pit in 2009, but today is bigger than the 38-foot-tall statue of Christ the Redeemer that towers over Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Is Incineration a better solution? Burn or Recycle?

Let us take the example of Singapore handling its waste over the years that is sent to the Semakau Landfill ( 8 kilometers south of the main island of Singapore) popularly called as the ‘Garbage of Eden’ . In 2019 Singapore incinerated more than 2.8 million tons of waste, an increase from 2.4 million tons in 2000. This landfill is filling up very quickly than previously anticipated with ash, mixed materials and very bulky objects that cannot be incinerated. The ash contains arsenic which is carcinogenic and also exposes the marine ecosystem around it to irreparable damage. Singapore is now looking at more efficient recycling methods that will discourage waste upfront.

Alappuzha, Kerala’s coastal town is a model for a zero-waste community that has no landfills. Waste is segregated at source and the municipality ran several campaigns for years to change the mindset of people on how to manage waste. Alleppey’s canals that connect the local villages and communities are now getting cleaner and sustainable thanks to a de-centralized waste management system with a lot of people’s participation to handle waste.

Recycle advocates claim that recycling most materials from municipal solid waste saves on average three to five times more energy than does burning them for electricity. Incinerators burn waste but destroys the resources for good.

Solar projects on landfills:

How do we adapt our landfills to be more useful and not just serve as dumping grounds that pollute land and water? By installing solar on closed and inactive landfills around the country, municipalities have been successful in re-purposing large vacant sites. The clean electricity potential and jobs created due to solar projects can be a great incentive for individual states and local governments to achieve ambitious sustainability and environmental goals.

But a bigger problem arising is how to recycle the solar panel waste and not to dump them back onto other open landfills. Read this report, that states that the volume of photovoltaic (PV) panel waste in the country is estimated to grow to 2,00,000 tonnes by 2030 and to around 1.8 million tonnes by 2050. India needs stringent policies to handle this waste as the heavy metals in solar panels (mainly lead and cadmium) can contaminate groundwater, affect plant life and harm human health.

In conclusion:

Education begins at home. Waste segregation begins at home. If we have to stop all the waste reaching our precious waterways, the onus is on each one of us to reduce our single use plastics and products usage, explore natural methods of kitchen waste composting, recycle and repurpose what we no longer may need and promote more public awareness every day.

We have only one earth to live in and let us take care of it as responsible humans.

Published by Meena Iyer

Sustainability champion and naturally committed to support the cause of healing our planet impacted due to climate change.

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