Landfills and Air Pollution

Swedish landfill

Less than 1 percent of Swedish household waste ends up in landfills. Photo credit: Sweden.se.

Clean energy, waste disposal, air pollution, and climate change are polarizing subjects worth discussion. Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, warmer oceans, and changing wind patterns are all indicators that global warming is a real concern. One of the most urgent consequences of climate change is unhealthy air. Millions of people die unnecessarily each year as a result of toxic air pollution. To mitigate landfill waste and air pollution, countries like Sweden and the Netherlands have taken innovative steps toward creating a more sustainable planet.

Sweden is close to realizing its dream of achieving zero waste. Today, less than 1 percent of Swedish household waste ends up in landfills. Swedes have been perfecting the art of converting garbage into energy since 1904, when the first incineration plant was built in Stockholm. The waste burnt in the thirty-two currently existing plants produces heat for around 810,000 homes and electricity for 250,000 homes.

To encourage a national commitment to conservation, recycling stations are required to be no more than 300 meters (984 feet) away from residential areas. Paper, plastic, and glass are reused, while food is composted and repurposed as soil or biogas. In fact, the garbage trucks that are used to collect waste typically run on recycled electricity or biogas. Most important, special trucks are employed to collect discarded electronics and chemical waste.

According to the United Nations University’s Solving the E-waste Problem Initiative, 48.8 million metric tons of e-waste, or electronics waste, is generated globally each year. At 6.1 million metric tons, China generates the second highest amount, after the United States. Much of the world’s e-waste winds up in the southeastern Chinese town of Guiyu, which is considered the global electronic graveyard. Guiyu is inundated with more than 1.6 million tons of e-waste annually, resulting in $600 million worth of recycling. Though many items are refurbished and resold, burnt plastic and circuit boards have turned the surrounding air and water toxic. Roughly 80 percent of the local children suffer from lead poisoning, due to the high amount of metal contamination in the air. It is important to note that particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter can enter the bloodstream through the lungs.

Guiyu landfill

A young girl holding e-waste in the Guiyu, China landfill. Photo credit: Greenpeace.

In contrast, the Swedish government claims that the smoke from Swedish incineration plants consists of 99.9 percent nontoxic carbon dioxide and water, which is then further filtered. While cleanly burnt garbage in Sweden creates energy, its unregulated Chinese counterpart creates profit for migrant workers. As such, both countries eagerly accept refuse. Sweden imports seven hundred thousand tons of waste from other countries when they exhaust their own pile of rubbish.

By almost eliminating the need for landfills, Sweden has greatly reduced its methane emissions. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s April 2015 report Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2013, landfills accounted for 18 percent of American methane emissions in 2013, making them the third largest source in the country. (The largest source was enteric fermentation, which is a digestive process unique to ruminants like cows and sheep. Basically, we’re talking about cow burps. The second largest source was natural gas systems.) Methane is considered a greenhouse gas because it absorbs and emits radiation, which directly contributes to global warming. Landfill food waste is a significant factor in global climate change, as the decomposition of piled organic matter produces methane gas. Deprived of oxygen, food that decomposes in the lower layers of landfill waste is subjected to anaerobic digestion—a biological process wherein bacteria work to decompose organic material. In the process biogas is released, of which approximately 60 percent is methane. Unlike Sweden, America annually discards enough food to fill 730 football stadiums.

Smog Free Tower

The Smog Free Tower, conceived by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde and scientist Bob Ursem. Photo credit: Studio Roosegaarde.

In an effort to reduce global air pollution, Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde collaborated with Delft University of Technology researcher Bob Ursem and European Nano Solutions to produce the Smog Free Tower. Essentially a large-scale air purifier, the tower works by drawing pollution into its purification chambers through a wind-powered ventilation system atop the tower. Nearly twenty-three feet tall, the tower purifies up to one million cubic feet of air per hour by ionizing airborne smog particles. Particles smaller than fifteen micrometers take on a positive charge and are attached to a grounded counter electrode in the purification chamber. Once clean, the air inside is directed through vents near the bottom of the tower. According to Ursem, the brilliance behind the tower, and the difference between it and other ionic air purifiers, is the fact that the tower does not produce ozone. This is because the tower does not charge the particles with negative voltage.

Roosegaarde says he created the tower with China’s capital city, Beijing, in mind. As such, the artist plans on taking the tower on a global tour, to increase awareness and demand for the device. Air pollution health concerns manifest primarily as heart disease and respiratory problems, resulting in millions of premature deaths each year. Though many believe that Beijing is the world’s most polluted city, India’s capital city, Delhi, holds that title. In India, permanent lung damage is the second most deadly affliction after heart disease, killing 1.3 million annually. Air pollution and landfill waste are intrinsically linked and equally dangerous. Simply put, creating less waste would minimize air pollution and save lives.

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