Bioreactor landfills

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Introduction – Waste management has been one of the most important problems of the 20th century world. As the population grows, so does the waste (domestic and industrial) that goes along with it. With every used commodity there is a resulting trash that needs to be dumped in a place that is designed to process these wastes properly.

The world has gone a long way, from the North American dumpsites during 6500 BC to the creation of Destructor in 1847, from efforts to recycle and to incinerate; in every turn of the year or century, people keep finding solutions as the world keep finding new problems stemming from waste management. In the age of landfills, the bioreactor landfill appears to some as the next best things since the popularization of the Three Rs, while to some, it is just another effort that will not directly answer the problems of waste management and add to the growing danger posed on public health and environmental sustainability.

What is a bioreactor landfill? – The term bioreactor landfill may sound overly technical and highly scientific to an average individual, but the truth is a bioreactor landfill is simply an area where trash and other waste materials are dumped.

The only difference it has from an ordinary dumpsite is that inside a bioreactor landfill, the trash and waste dumped there still undergoes scientific processes that  transforms it into something that humans can use again, in the processes keeping the earth from ending up as one big dumpsite and maximizing the potentials found in garbage and trash.

There are bioreactor landfills that are aerobic – meaning they rely on the presence of air to assist the process of decomposition. There are also anaerobic bioreactor landfills, which is characterized by the absence of the role of air in the process of biodegradation. Hybrid bioreactor landfills utilize both aerobic and anaerobic methods.

The idea of a bioreactor landfill was designed specifically to perform a specific task and a set of operation. Despite the fact that there are different types of configurations that characterizes a particular bioreactor landfill, the bioreactor landfill in general accomplishes similar functions and performs a similar role in the society regardless of its current location. But the differences in configuration among the different bioreactor landfill allows for a little diversification on the details of its performance and operation, which will be discussed in detail as the paper progresses, focusing on one particular configuration type of a bioreactor landfill to the next.

How they work – The operation of a bioreactor landfill involves the use of two important elements – water and air – to allow for the acceleration of the decomposition of both domestic and industrial waste that is dumped in a bioreactor landfill. It is important that the decomposition process is accelerated so that the waste materials are processed faster and the usable byproduct of this decomposition – biogas as well as compost – is produced faster and is immediately utilized, particularly for energy-generating activities.

The biogas that is produced enters specialized pipelines that lead this gas towards where it can be burned and transformed into electricity. The compost material, on the other hand, is also created after biodegradable materials undergo decomposition stages and becomes ready as alternative fertilizer as well as a very suitable soil conditioner used by individuals who have gardens and plantations.

Bioreactor landfills operating in US – The website Bioreactors.org lists 13 different bioreactor landfills operating (save one, which is in development as indicated in the website).

The most number of bioreactor landfills is found in Florida, which has four different bioreactor landfills – the Alachua County Southeast Landfill, the Highlands County, the New River Regional Landfill found in Raiford and the Polk County Landfill which is found in Lakeland. Virginia is the other place with more than one bioreactor landfill site, and these are the Maplewood Landfill and King George County Landfills and the Virginia Landfill Project XL Demonstration Project.

The rest features just one bioreactor landfill location; California has the Yolo County bioreactor landfill while Kentucky has the Outer Loop Landfill. In Michigan, a bioreactor landfill is found in Clare County while the Mississippi features the Plantation Oaks Bioreactor Demonstration Project, Sibley. The ACUA’s Haneman Environmental Park, Egg Harbor Township is found in New Jersey while the Buncombe County Landfill Project is found in North Carolina, while the Columbia bioreactor landfill is currently under development in Missouri.

The bioreactor landfill and human health – One of the main issues that bioreactor landfills face is the debate over its impact on health. Those who are pushing for the use of a bioreactor landfill claims that this is particularly designed to protect the health of the people, while those who protest the creation of such technology points to the impending health risk to the public once bioreactor landfills become fully operational.

Tolaymat et al (2004) noted in an article about how the bioreactor landfills contribute to the safety of the people and how these landfills protect the health of the people, pointing out to the parameters which if observed properly, ‘will collectively ensure (that) the optimal operation of bioreactor landfills’ will pose minimized ‘risk to human health and the environment’ (p 5).

Sally Gutierrez, in a foreword note in Tolaymat et al’s study, noted how the EPA is geared in developing a balance between human health and the creation of technologies that can help sustain life. Gutierrez said that the office is cognizant about how pollutants affect human health and that in the minimizing of these pollutants through the use of bioreactor landfills it is contributing towards the protection of public health (p ii).

The Kulangoor Anti-Dump Action Group, Incorporated (KADAG) is one of the different groups that voices opposition versus the bioreactor landfill technology and one of the reasons why they do not support such technology is because of the health risk that goes along with the creation of a bioreactor landfill.

According to the group in an article posted in its website, the bioreactor landfill will cause (1) the presence of gases in the atmosphere that will adversely effect human health, from volatile organic compounds to organic sulphides to metals and (2) health risks that includes eye irritation, physical discomfort and illness due to the smell and odor, breathing problems, the presence of cancer-stimulating carcinogens, the presence of possible cases of birth defects associated with women exposed close to bioreactor landfills and the threat of a person losing his/her sense of smell over time due to the exposure of hydrogen sulphide (par 4) – KADAG defining the health effect as ranging from ‘slightly annoying’ to ‘potentially fatal'(par 3).

In a slide presentation, Jack Taylor added his own thoughts on the perceived health impact of bioreactor landfills (p11), citing hepatitis A and B, respiratory diseases, as well as the presence of other types of bacteria as a threat to health resulting the presence and operation of a bioreactor landfill. Taylor also identified other things that will be a threat to health, including fires and explosions resulting to burns and even fatalities, release of airborne irritants and smoke.

How they benefit the environment – The most important benefit the environment can get from the use of a bioreactor landfill is the lessening of the impact of waste management to the environment, especially in the age where population has grown and the density is close to reaching the level that every land area is close in proximity to human beings that the government should secure the land area for safety.

In the past, waste management is not given a very serious attention because the people are situated far away from dumpsites and they cannot smell the odor of wastes and garbage and they are hardly in a position to be threatened health-wise by the manner by which the waste management is being handled by the local government. Because of this reality, the consideration for the treatment to the environment was not as focused as it is today.

Simply said, the people back then hardly cares about the impact of the existing waste management to the environment; but now that people are realizing how environmental impacts are closely tied to impacts to humans, humans have started devising ways to protect the environment so that they can protect themselves in the long run. The creation of a bioreactor landfill was designed to protect both the environment and the people from the effects of waste management.

It protects the environment by providing features that guarantee that harmful elements like leachate and harmful gases are trapped by the site or is manufactured and processed to make it less and less harmful and more and more useful. Bioreactor landfills protect the environment by making sure that unlike in the past, the byproducts that form inside dumpsites are contained and not allowed to be released and harm the rest of the environment.

Through the use of bioreactor landfills, the environment is not in the risk of having to experience the level of environmental assault that it experienced during the pre-bioreactor landfill era. The stopping or the slowing down of the terrorizing of the environment due to waste and dump management allows the environment to recover from its previous trauma and allows it to heal itself and make the world a better place to live for the different life forms the existence of which depends on the state and health of the environment, and that includes humans.

Reinhart and Townsend, in the book entitled ‘Landfill Bioreactor Design and Operation’, mentioned about how bioreactor landfills are created to ‘minimize environmental impact’ (p1) that goes along with waste management and decomposition and degradation processes. But are bioreactor landfills indeed are capable of minimal environmental impact or are they contributing to the deterioration of the environment through the effect and impact of its operation?

Reinhart and Townsend explains that because of the design of the bioreactor landfill that enables it to accomplish its purpose, it automatically ‘provides additional protection of the environment’ (p1) – how?

First, by making the area quickly available for more and more trash and dump because it processes waste faster than ordinary landfills and dumpsites, and second, by  providing a treatment system that makes trash usable and at the same time allows for the segregation and separation of chemicals that results from the process which can harm the environment. In layman’s terms, the trash of man that enters in a bioreactor landfill is processes to become something usable for man to use, and for those that is more destructive than utilitarian, the bioreactor landfill holds inside and continuously process until it is either usable or safe, or both.

Bioreactor landfills and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – The United States Environmental Protection Agency or US EPA was created in 1970 as the government’s way of putting a front office that will handle all problems involving the environment. Since its creation and until today, the US EPA have shown intensive effort in providing the latest, newest and safest knowledge and technology possible so that the country can maintain the sustainability of its everyday life without doing too much damage on the environment.

The US EPA is the main agency involved in the drive to make bioreactor landfills a technology that is understood and accepted by many different US communities, a tasked which the US EPA know is not easy since there are many people and groups who are against the initiatives of US EPA in the past, and there are those who are voicing strong opposition versus the implementation of the use of bioreactor landfills in the country.

Because of its role in the propagation of the use of bioreactor landfills and the agency’s role in the continued development of this technology, the US EPA is the point agency that handles every detail of the work involved in bioreactor propagation and development – recommendations, studies, frameworks, trainings and other activities directed to the bioreactor landfill projects.

It is the US EPA’s responsibility to determine the level of safety that this new technology brings to the people and to the employees that will work directly on the site; the agency is responsible in making sure the people are well informed and well trained, and that there are continued studies that are geared at determining important information that it can use to further improve the growth of bioreactor landfill technology.

Because of the costs that come along with the entry of bioreactor technology in place previously existing technology that manages waste disposal, many other individuals outside of US EPA are also taking a very serious inquiry about the real economic and social impact of the use of a bioreactor landfill.

Generally, the advantages of old technology is the minimal cost of operation, something that poorer communities can manage even at the risk of being incapable in the long term t manage waste disposal effectively, as for the bioreactor landfill, the higher cost is expected to be balanced by the prospect of income-generation through the sell of methane as a fuel source, and the prospect of a much safer environment and much safer state of life of the people around it.

In a study made by Xu et al, the group manifested the interest in determining the actual costs for the use of bioreactor landfill and sanitary landfill to determine which is more practical and more cost efficient.

Xu pointed out that there is a challenge to the ‘overall economic advantage’ that the ‘new technology’ must prove ‘under local conditions (p381) and this can only be done if there is a substantial study from which information and conclusion can be derived from.

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