“Super-emitter” Landfills Releasing Massive Amounts Methane 

Image: Tom Fisk/Pexels

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A new study has found that “super-emitter” landfills produce more methane than the fossil fuel or agricultural sectors. The years-long aerial survey performed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the leak-detection firm Scientific Aviation found that these landfills were emitting up to six times more than Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates. Experts say that these findings show that the world’s waste management systems need a green overhaul fast.

Why This Matters: Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gasses and can trap heat up to 86 times more effectively than CO2. Landfills are now the third-largest source of methane in the country, and the U.N. estimates that landfills and wastewater produce one-fifth of the world’s methane.

The Trump administration delayed regulations that would protect people–predominantly marginalized communities–from the harms of municipal landfills. The EPA has since announced a plan to finalize those regulations to measure and mitigate methane from landfills. But these new findings show that our landfills may need more mitigation than previously thought, especially as waste management systems worldwide have buckled under the weight of COVID-19.

Wasting Time: Scientific Aviation flew planes over landfills operated by Republic Services, Waste Management, Sacramento County, Orange County, and more. Imaging found that one Republic Services landfill was emitting more than a quarter ton of methane each hour, six times higher than the EPA’s estimate for that facility and the equivalent of 12,000 idling vehicles. These emissions are caused when organic material like food is buried and rots in low-oxygen conditions. 

“One of the largest emitting industries, waste management, deserves more attention,” said Eliot Caroom, a researcher at TruValue Labs. The waste management industry has been the subject of significant investments in recent years. Bill Gates and BlackRock’s Larry Fink are both strong advocates for corporate climate action, but both also own stock in Waste Management. But experts say they may not even be aware of the environmental damage. Waste Management has a near-perfect score for climate strategy in the Dow Jones sustainability index.

Regulators have asked landfill operators to communicate directly with the fly-overs to find and mitigate leaks in real-time. Jorn Herner, head of the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) research planning, administration, and emissions mitigation, said that these leaks could be quickly fixed by topping up soil layers and repairing broken pipes. The state plans to release a report on the success of this cooperative effort later this year. It eventually hopes to conduct the same monitoring with satellites rather than planes and has already announced a $100 million project to launch several satellites in 2023. Experts hope that this investment will help pinpoint other significant, overlooked sources of GHGs.

Up Next

California Bill Aims to Clarify Recycling Symbols

California Bill Aims to Clarify Recycling Symbols


By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer Those three arrows in a triangle are an easy shorthand for recyclables, but there’s one problem:  just because the symbol is printed on a product, doesn’t necessarily mean the item is recyclable. It simply informs consumers of the type of plastic used based on the number within the arrows. […]

Continue Reading 391 words
One Cool Thing: Think Outside the Sauce

One Cool Thing: Think Outside the Sauce

“Recycling just got saucy.” Taco Bell has announced that it’s teaming up with recycling firm TerraCycle to keep its iconic sauce packets out of landfills. The company says that more than 8 billion of their spicy sauce packets end up in landfills each year, but with this new partnership, those friendly packets can become something […]

Continue Reading 139 words
One Cool Thing: Net-Zero Sports

One Cool Thing: Net-Zero Sports

Sky Sports, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, the Premier League, and COP26 have teamed up to put on the world’s first major net-zero football game (or Soccer game as it’s called in the US). #GameZero, featuring Tottenham vs. Chelsea, will be a showcase of how fans, teams, and broadcasters can move toward a net-zero future. The […]

Continue Reading 131 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.