Landfills: Good news or bad news first?

Author: Ben Kassoy

Landfills are trash. Literally. But are they entirely bad? That’s…complicated.


When it comes to landfills, there’s good news and there’s bad news. But the bottom line is this: we all can – and should! – do our part to keep our waste out of them. Ready to learn more?  Let’s (dumpster) dive in.


Good news: Landfills have protective measures to minimize their environmental impact. 


These include a clay and/or plastic liner to prevent runoff from entering the environment; a system to capture or vent pent-up methane gas; groundwater monitoring equipment to test for potential contaminants; and pipes to collect toxic liquid (grossly called “leachate”) leached by decomposing trash.


Bad news: The system isn’t perfect.

And landfills do cause environmental – and human – harm

Despite precautions, landfills still release methane, a major contributor to climate change. Plus, if a liner leaks, the leachate (again, it’s as gross as it sounds) can contaminate nearby water sources. Other issues: the destruction of natural habitat to create landfills, CO2 emissions, and the health hazards caused to communities located near landfills – an issue that disproportionately affects people of color, Indigenous communities, and low-income neighborhoods.


Good news: Landfills keep our cities and towns cleaner. 


Without an effective waste management system, trash might be dumped in vacant lots around towns and cities, which would impact millions in urban areas. Plus, landfills provide a place to separate recyclable and non-recyclable waste, and a place to keep hazardous materials away from the public.


Bad news: Trash doesn’t actually break down in a landfill. 


(And if it does, it takes a really, really long time.) Waste in a landfill is compacted, and then a layer of dirt is spread over top to contain debris, discourage pests, and minimize odors. Because the trash has no access to oxygen or sunlight, decomposition takes for-ev-er. How long? 


  • Paper: 2-6 weeks
  • Food: 6 months-2 years
  • Plastic bags: 20 years, turning into microplastics
  • Other plastic items: 200 years to forever
  • Assorted household items (like toothbrushes and coffee pods): Up to 500 years
  • Glass: Millions(!) of years

Good news: There are easy ways to keep our waste out of landfills. 


Pro tips, coming at you:



Want to learn more about the systemic health and environmental impacts of waste? Read about environmental justice and learn how to get involved.



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