The Environmental Protection Agency announced plans Friday that aim to reduce landfill emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases by nearly a third, in an attempt to more tightly regulate a sector that accounts for nearly a fifth of total U.S. methane emissions.
The proposals seek to update methane regulations on new and existing landfills. If enacted, the EPA says the regulations would reduce methane emissions from municipal solid waste landfills by 487,000 tons a year beginning in 2025. Since methane is about 25 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, that reduction would be equal to cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 12.2 million metric tons — the amount emitted by more than 1.1 million homes. Under the proposed rules, landfills would have to start capturing two-thirds of their methane and other hazardous emissions by 2023. That’s 13 percent more than they’re currently required to capture.
The proposed regulations would apply to the more than 2,000 active municipal solid waste landfills in the United States, which together make up the nation’s third-largest source of methane emissions. These emissions are produced when organic matter, such as food waste, decomposes in a landfill. Once the EPA’s proposed rules are filed in the federal register, they’ll be subject to a 60-day public commenting period.
Though regulations can help cut down on these emissions, research has pointed towards the need to reduce the amount of food waste going into landfills. A 2013 report found that as much as 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. is thrown away — meaning that 31 million tons of food is added to landfills every year. A report earlier this year found that, in the U.K., each metric ton of food that’s wasted is associated with 4.0 to 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).
Food is wasted for different reasons around the world: in developing countries, it’s often lack of refrigeration, inefficient harvesting methods, and poor transportation options that cause food waste. In richer countries, there’s more consumer-side food waste: people simply buy too much food and throw away what they don’t end up eating. “Ugly” food is also often thrown away in wealthier countries: according to the U.N. Environment Program, up to 40 percent of produce ends up getting thrown away by farmers because it doesn’t meet supermarkets’ standards for attractiveness.
The EPA aims to capture more of the methane emissions from landfills, but there are also options for converting the gas and turning it into a source of energy. Sending garbage to energy from waste (EfW) facilities can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that end up in the atmosphere: the EPA estimates that for every ton of garbage an EfW facility processes, about one ton of CO2e is prevented. EfW facilities burn the trash in a controlled environment, and this burning generates electricity. According to a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress, though trapping methane and using it as an energy source is a good step forward for reducing emissions from landfills, it isn’t as effective as sending trash to EfW facilities.