Building in the potential from the beginning

Freshkills Park, PC Michael Anton

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated that the number of landfills in the United States has steadily declined over the past couple of years; however, their average size has increased. In 2012, approximately 53.8 percent of the Municipal Solid Wastes (MSW) in the U.S. was discarded in landfills, 34.5 percent was recovered, and 11.7 percent was combusted with energy recovery: making landfills the most popular method of waste disposal.

Ever since landfills where established, various complications emerged, such as ground water contamination, which called attention to this disposal method. In 1960, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Solid Waste Management stated that 94 percent of all land disposal operations were inadequate in terms of air, water, and land pollution [majorly air pollution]. Amongst the various laws that were being passed, the U.S. Congress in 1976 passed a very important act known as the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act (RCRA) that set certain limitations as it governed the disposal of solid and hazardous wastes. The RCRA required the EPA to set standards for landfills which would be determined after affects on health or the environment. As a result, there was a need for meticulous planning, which as a result led to the establishment of engineered landfills.

Although landfills are something that we don’t want to make more of, Mariel Villeré, Freshkills Park Manager for Programs (Arts and Grants), believes that “they are actually the best solution that environmental engineers have developed for trash disposal.” Engineered landfills required certain laws to be passed for initiatives to take place. In 1991, the EPA required new municipal landfills to have at least six different layers of protection between the MSW and the groundwater. Karen Fairbanks, founding partner of Marble Fairbanks, mentioned that this ‘engineered’ idea is rather a ‘work in progress’. As the process itself reveals new findings with time and as it allows the improvement of current solutions. In other words, rather than predicting future events, action is taken when there is a nuisance.

This approach limits a landfill’s efficiency, as its use is not maximized. The developing process that Fairbanks mentioned which takes place through tweaking the existing mechanism does not target long-term sanitation issues, but rather current ones. This trend can be seen through the evolution of landfills, particularly in their requirements. This is primarily the reason behind the negative connotations that are usually associated with landfills.

Landfills are often thought of as ‘bad’ for a number of reasons, but the reality is that a lot of that ‘bad’ can be and has been controlled through the addition of layers, liners, and vents. The EPA stated that today’s landfills are modern “sanitary landfills in response to state and federal requirements for liners, leachate collection and treatment, and prevention of land- fill gas explosions”. However, a key aspect that is missing is the land that the landfills occupy.

A landfill highly limits the use of the area once it is closed and capped. Dr. Peter Bower, former mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey, is against the use of landfills as “they create unusable land, which could have possibly been used for farming. Land is filled with garbage and wasted, disregarding the value of productive land that has been destroyed.”

But, that does not need to be the case. What if we take into account the value of productive land? Can we enforce constructive use of landfills?

According to Villeré, recreating landfills end use is possible. Her involvement with Freshkills Park, a temporary landfill in Staten Island that was closed in 2001 and is still in the process of being transformed into a park, gave her the insight on how that can be possible. Since the transformation of Freshkills includes incorporating various activities, which required engaging the site, such as kayaking, which was very challenging and limiting as the site did not provide the proper infrastructure to integrate some establishments. Villeré’s most fulfilling moment that came out of Freshkills as a case study “is the building in consciousness, awareness, and habits for people who have come across the project”. This includes basic ideas of reducing water consumption, reusing and recycling to lessen the amount of space that landfills take up. Most importantly, Villeré believes that “we need to create bigger changes in policy that build in end uses for the landfill.” In Freshkills, a lot of the work is changing, particularly when designing the park and anticipating how people are going to use it. This process could be much more successful simply through planning in advance.

Population in the United States has increased by 82 million over the past 30 years. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the increase in global population and the development of urban and industrial fields has made it more difficult to dispose materials. The truth is that we are in fact running out of space and it is necessary to set a potential use of the landfill from the beginning. Villeré stresses the importance of building in this idea of an end use in the very establishment of a landfill because “not only will the municipality or cooperation which established the landfill will be bound to closing it and capping it, but would need to allocate the funds and put in the effort of engineering the trash in a way where it can accommodate to its particular use.”

So how is this important to climate change? Since landfills are currently contributing to climate change primarily through air pollution, we are no longer suffering from landfills but we are adapting to the present climate change conditions by controlling and creating the future use of landfills in advance.