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Landfill Methane Pollution Is Trashing the Climate

Photo of Ryan Maher at Baltimore Landfill 7.26.21.jpg

It’s been a summer of record-breaking heat, wildfires, floods. So people can’t avoid thinking about climate change. It’s in our faces, like the heat radiating from the blacktop in Baltimore.

But when people think about the causes of global warming, their minds normally turn toward gas-guzzling vehicles, Exxon-Mobil, and coal-fired power plants.

They don’t normally talk trash.

Ryan Maher is the exception. He’s down at Baltimore’s Quarantine Road Landfill, heaving a bag of garbage into a dumpster as he talks about a recent report he wrote for the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). His investigation revealed that Maryland’s landfills release far more methane and other greenhouse gases than anyone expected.

“When organic material in the landfill composes, that process releases both methane and carbon dioxide – the two most important greenhouse gases—in significant quantities,” said Maher, an attorney for EIP. “We found that 51,500 tons of methane were emitted in 2017, the most recent year for which comprehensive data are available. That was actually four times the state’s estimate, and it would be equal to the greenhouse gas emissions that you’d get from about 975,000 passenger vehicles driving on the road for a year.”

After Maher released his report, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) immediately acknowledged he was right and corrected the state’s official emissions inventory. As it turns out, landfills are the biggest source of methane pollution in the state, not the natural gas industry, as previously thought.

The state agency said in a statement on its website: “These new findings, and updates to the greenhouse gas inventory, reinforce the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from landfills.”

To address the problem, Maryland regulators have started holding a series of public meetings to create new rules for landfills to reduce their vast plumes of methane.

Russell Dickerson is an atmospheric chemist at the University of Maryland, College Park. He said the landfill methane issue is far bigger than just Maryland – it’s a national and even global problem. Aircraft flying over landfills with methane-sensing equipment across the country, as part of his studies and others over the last four years, have detected much higher concentrations of the potent greenhouse gas rising from landfills than previously known.

“Hey, it isn’t just Baltimore,” Dickerson said, reflecting on the multiple studies that followed his 2018 report. “It’s Washington, Baltimore, Philly, New York, Boston – they are all generating two and three times as much methane as in the inventory.”

This past spring, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law requiring large generators of food waste to divert some of that waste away from landfills. But this new law won’t work unless the state and counties build more composting facilities.

Emily Ranson, the Maryland Director of Clean Water Action, is among those advocating for more municipal composting facilities, as well as stronger waste reduction programs and state methane regulations, such as already exist in California.

“This is such a critical issue,” Ranson said. “In Maryland, we are trying to reduce our greenhouse gases, and we are belching way more methane into the atmosphere than we realized.”

Roni Neff is a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Director of the Program on Food System Sustainability and Public Health at the Center for a Livable Future.

She said that food waste is a huge problem in America – but one that can be solved. Americans typically throw away a third of the food they buy. That wastes about $162 billion a year, and contributes to an excessive amount of methane and carbon dioxide, Neff said.

“When we look at climate change, for a lot of people, we feel kind of powerless, because the problem is so large,” Neff said. “But there is a lot that consumers can do, in their homes, in their households. Things like becoming aware where they are wasting their foods, and then shifting those particular patterns.”

Her message: waste less, compost more – and don’t trash the climate.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.