A Peek Inside a Landfill

Billions of dollars worth of clothing are sold in the United States every year, and every year 12 million tons of it ends up in the trash. Just think of the mountains of scarves, sweaters, and T-shirts being sent to an early grave rather than being reused or recycled. The clothing amounts to roughly 5% of all landfill debris produced in the country.  

A lot of clothes are made using organic fibers such as cotton, flax, wool, and silk. These cloths are derived naturally from animals and plants, and are therefore biodegradable. Biodegradability is generally a desirable trait in a product, because it naturally breaks down via composting or other natural processes (for example, compostable utensils and cups are much better than the foam variety). The problem is that when organic fibers are dumped in a landfill, they start to decompose through a process called anaerobic digestion.

Anaerobic digestion involves microorganisms breaking down organic matter in an oxygen-free environment. In the case of landfills, the continuous compression of layers of trash squeezes the air out of the garbage below, producing ideal conditions for anaerobic bacteria and other such critters. As the clothes trapped within those layers start to decompose, they begin producing a number of byproducts, chief among them being methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon dioxide, absorbing 20 times more heat in the atmosphere.

Planet Aid accepts clothing, shoes, and other textiles regardless of condition.

All of that decomposing organic waste makes landfills one of the biggest contributors of atmospheric methane.  Smart landfill operators have invested in gas capture systems that trap methane from the site, and often can (but not always) be used in combustion engines.  Methane that becomes a fuel source can at least provide heat and electricity. However, landfills are not very stable and tend to shift and settle.  Pipes buried within the landfill as part of the capture systems can leak or break, releasing methane into the atmosphere.

Beyond the problem of methane, clothing can also cause contamination problems for landfills. For example, the dyes and chemicals that are used to treat clothing can build up and can end up contaminating nearby groundwater and soils.

It is clear that keeping clothes out of our landfills should be a priority, especially since all of it can easily be reused or recycled.  Moreover, the demand for used clothing is very great in developing nations.

Another solution is to simply reduce the amount of clothing we buy, and wear what we own a little longer. Even though fashion changes all the time, the climate shouldn’t have to change with it.    

Contributed by Kevin Rossignol

Kevin Rossignol is an outreach coordinator and writer for Budget Dumpster

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