In Depth

The Landfill and Climate Change

Landfills are the largest anthropogenic emitters of the greenhouse gas (GHG) methane (CH4) in the U.S. In 2006, landfills in the U.S. emitted 6,211 tons—34% of the total U.S. methane emissions (equivalent to 130.4 million tons of CO2), EPA GHG Inventory Report 2009, and second in overall methane emissions to enteric fermentation (methane produce by livestock digestion). Methane as a greenhouse gas has 20 times the potency of carbon dioxide (CO2).1

Paper is a long-term net emitter of GHG when placed in landfill. The equivalent of 42.7 million tons of CO2 emitted in 2006 can be attributed to the methane produced from the decay of paper products. The fact that paper and paper products make up the largest component of a landfill (32%) illustrate the impact paper and landfills have on climate change.1

As populations increase, so does the amount of waste that goes to landfills. The challenge is to reduce the volume of waste going into landfills and to impact that landfills have on climate change.

Methane mitigation

Although methane generated from landfills continues to increase year after year, methane actually emitted into the atmosphere has decreased nearly 10% from 1990 to 2007 as a result of landfill gas collection projects that are now recovering approximately 50% of the gases produced. Methane mitigation is expected to increase in response to federal regulations that require large municipal landfills to collect and combust their gas. However, the problem is large and there is ample opportunity not only to continue to make progress in landfill gas reclamation but also to increase waste paper recovery, keeping reusable fiber in the fiber stream.

Methane generated from paper products in landfills vs. methane emitted



Source: National Council of Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI)2

1. US EPA. 2009 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: INVENTORY OF U.S. GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS AND SINKS: 1990-2007. Tech. EPA, 2009. (http://epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/usinventoryreport09.html)

2.National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Inc. (NCASI). 2008. The Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Profile of the U.S. Forest Products Sector. Special Report No. 08-05. Research Triangle Park, NC: National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Inc.