Full Title: Trashing the Climate: Methane from Municipal Landfills
Author(s): Preet Bains, Sara Brodzinsky, Haley Lewis, Keene Kelderman, and Leah Kelly
Publisher(s): Environmental Integrity Project
Publication Date: May 18, 2023
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Municipal landfills are one of the largest sources of methane in the United States, responsible for an estimated 14.3 percent of total methane emissions. When organic components of municipal solid waste such as food scraps, yard trimmings, and paper break down in landfills, they generate methane. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) examined data from the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program to characterize methane emissions reported by more than 1,100 municipal landfills. EPA requires landfills operating since 1980 to estimate their methane emissions using a model and to report their annual emissions to a national database. The program only applies to larger landfills that generate at least 1,000 metric tons of methane before any gas collection.
The evidence suggests that EPA is significantly underestimating methane emissions from landfills and that stronger regulations are needed. For example, models currently used by EPA to estimate emissions rely on a combination of default values and site-specific variables, such as how much trash has been dumped over time and the type of covering over the waste. However, the models assume that landfill covers and gas collection systems work as designed and effectively control emissions, but little information is collected about how well these systems perform.
Despite significant methane emissions from municipal landfills, federal regulators are, so far, not doing enough to curb methane emissions. EPA rules function as a regulatory floor and states are authorized to set more stringent standards. More must be done to curb landfill methane. The failure to adequately address air pollution from landfills contributes to climate change and disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income neighborhoods near dumps, creating an environmental injustice. Improved control and monitoring are necessary.