What is it about?

As a society, we generate a lot of solid waste. Most of it ends up at landfills, which are designated spots to contain this waste. But landfills are open air, and as older waste decomposes, several gases are produced and directly released into the atmosphere. One of these gases is methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Scientists have created static algorithms to measure the global warming impact of landfills based on methane emissions at any given time. But the decomposition of waste in landfills is continuous and happens over many decades. So, scientists argue that these algorithms are not reflective of the true long-term impact of this process. Some of them recommend algorithms that take variations of methane emissions with time into account, or dynamic algorithms. In this paper, the authors compare static and dynamic algorithms to find out which is better for estimating the global warming impact of landfill emissions over 100-year and 20-year time horizons. Interestingly, it turns out that more than the algorithm type, other factors such as moisture content and rate of decomposition affect the 100 year prediction accuracy.

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Why is it important?

We have been utilizing landfills for many decades. Today, after fossil fuels and livestock, landfills are the third highest methane emission source. There are systems in place to capture and convert this emitted methane into other useful products such as electricity. Also, other forms of solid waste disposal are being explored. But as we make the transition to more sustainable practices, it is crucial that we continue to improve the accuracy with which we measure the impact our landfills have on global temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions. Better estimates, for instance, may show us that we do not have as much time to offset the damage as we initially thought. Key takeaway: Current algorithms are effective for estimating the global warming impact of landfill emissions; but understanding which environmental factors impact methane emissions can help improve estimation accuracy.

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: An Assessment of the Dynamic Global Warming Impact Associated with Long-Term Emissions from Landfills, Environmental Science & Technology, December 2019, American Chemical Society (ACS), DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.9b04066.
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