New Landfills Are Safe

"Today's landfill siting and design features essentially eliminate the potential for problems posed by older landfills—a fact confirmed by the EPA."—Daniel K. Benjamin, economics professor and former adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

Daniel K. Benjamin, "Eight Great Myths of Recycling," Property and Environment Research Center, September 2003, p. 9. www.perc.org/pdf/ps28.pdf.

And the country's waste managers maintain that there is still plenty of space in existing landfills to handle future garbage. According to James Thompson with Chartwell Information, a company that collects information about waste disposal, the United States currently has sufficient landfill capacity to last another eighteen years. And when that capacity is gone, Thompson notes, more landfills can be licensed and built. Professor Daniel Benjamin agrees, arguing, "Even though the United States is larger,

A plastic covering is shown at the Fresh Kills landfill in New York. Many environmental advocates do not believe that modern landfills are safe because these liners may eventually crack or leak.

A plastic covering is shown at the Fresh Kills landfill in New York. Many environmental advocates do not believe that modern landfills are safe because these liners may eventually crack or leak.

more affluent, and producing more garbage, it now has more landfill capacity than ever before."11

Despite these assurances, environmental advocates are not convinced that modern landfills are safe. Modern landfills contain many of the same toxic materials found in older dumps, they say, and their liners have a limited lifetime. In fact, some estimates say liners may crack or leak after just a few decades. The state-of-the-art landfill linings now mandated by the EPA, for example, are typically made of a plastic material called HDPE and are only about 0.1 mm (.04 inches) thick. Certain common materials, such as bleach and vinegar, can cause these linings to become brittle and degraded. Indeed, even the EPA admits that all liners eventually deteriorate and leak, stating:

Eventually synthetic liners will degrade and leachate collection systems will cease operation. ... No liner can be expected to remain impervious forever. As a result of interactions with waste, environmental effects, installation problems, and operating practices, liners eventually may degrade, tear, or crack and allow liquids to migrate out of the unit. . . . These technologies (double liners and leachate collection systems) may not effectively reduce the longer-term risk for landfills, especially for persistent and mobile compounds, because the containment system may only delay leachate release from the landfill until after post-closure, when the cap and leachate collection system begin to fail.12

As a result of these concerns about landfill safety, cities across the United States have sought, whenever possible, at least to reduce the amount of garbage that is placed into landfills by separately processing hazardous products, composting organic wastes, and recycling various materials.

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