Our waste may be a central part of our lives, although once we’ve marched it to the curb, it’s quickly ejected from our thoughts. It’s an exercise in great irony. The landscape of garbage epitomised by the jagged hills of our landfills, is filled with the bits and pieces of our forgotten lives. Yet these landscapes, however much they are disregarded, are an aspect of who we are. And they are firmly in the here and now. Our waste is us, so to speak.
Landfills are usually sited on the outskirts of any community. For those of us in eastern Placentia Bay, all of our waste heads to Robin Hood Bay Waste & Recycling, located at the edge of St. John’s, NL.
The immense mounds of the landfill holds our remains, myriad items, each stamped with the memories of our lives—food, bedding, once-loved birthday gifts, and numerous other objects deemed essential at one time or another. They’re all there, crushed, mulched, and mangled together, their usefulness now a distant memory.
Landfills are vast landscapes, resonant of a host of historical, social, economic, political meanings. Each are awkwardly aligned. As a landscape, landfills will always be confounding in their complexity.
Historical Aspect of Landfills
The idea of a landfill isn’t new. We’ve always needed a place to discard our waste. Whether we like it or not, the idea is a deeply embedded element of our history, one going back to the dawn of time.
In previous centuries, it might have better been referred to as a midden. Originally of Scandinavian origin, the word derived from the Swedish mödding. The midden would remain uncovered and simply accumulate the waste. Shell middens were common, and a reflection of its creator’s diet.
Photograph of a shell midden in Argentina (Source: Wikipedia).
In recent years, many of us would recall the “dumps” in our neighbourhoods. And they were just that, a dump. There was no real organisation to them. They’d be possibly open only at prescribed times, but generally, whatever we no longer wanted, these items could be dumped there.
Landfills, by contrast, are different entities. Yes, they’re dumps, although there’s more attention paid to their management and organisation. They yield a landscape that may not be aesthetically appealing. Nonetheless, these landscapes play an essential role in our lives.
The Plastic Dilemma
During the time landfills or middens were used in the past, the vast majority of the waste was organic in nature. While some of the materials, such as bone, may have taken a longer period of time to decompose, they would eventually degrade.
Things changed with the development of plastic. Originating in the mid nineteenth century, it really surged into our lives during the Second World War when plastics became a ready alternative to metal. Everything subsequently changed regarding the disposal of an increasing abundance of plastic waste going into our landfills.
Fast forward to the current situation that confounds us. If there’s a need for an item, no doubt there’s a version with at least some component being constructed with plastic. Bags of every sort, computers, diapers, cups and saucers, knives and forks, shoes, clothing, and virtually everything we need uses some form of plastic.
A trot to the local landfill will find every one of them taking up their place in the jumble of materials in the various heaps. Currently around 350–400 million tons of plastic waste is generated every year. Unfortunately, there’s little indication this will diminish any time soon.
It’s unknown how long plastics take to degrade. If they do, it would no doubt exceed several of our lifetimes. Plastics are composed primarily of carbon, much like ourselves. Despite being biobased, the plastics—micro- and macro-—do not biodegrade. Technically, though, they do break down, as opposed to decomposing.
Having broken down, the resulting microplastics that result have led to a host of other problems. They are especially dangerous in aquatic habitats where the fish invariably ingest them. Those microplastics then just travel along the food web until they get to the animals at the top of the web—like us.
Microplastics have numerous ways of getting into humans. They’re in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breath. It’s epidemic. We generally consume about a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. That’s about 5 grams. Researchers certainly feel microplastics are not beneficial in our systems. However, there’s no real knowledge of their impact. For instance, how long do they even remain in our bodies?
Albeit worrisome, we can make decisions that reduce the presence of plastic in our lives. Try using less single-use plastic, including food packaging. Maybe recycle that water bottle and buy one made of glass. How about thinking twice about using that disposable plate and cutlery. These are only a few of many options available to us.
While efforts to divert plastics from the waste are ongoing, they don’t solve the problem of the excessive amount going into the landfills. Currently in Canada, only 9% of plastics are recycled. That’s not a lot. Still, it’s up to us to ensure this statistic increases. Other options are opening up in terms of dealing with our abundance of plastics.
Researchers are exploring whether certain microorganisims can be used to biodegrade the plastics. Potential strains including Streptococcus, Aspergillus, Bacillus, Staphylococcus Penicillium, Moraxella and Streptomyces are potential microorganisms that can biodegrade plastic. If obtained from the landfill environment, these microorganisms can be used in biodegradation of plastic wastes in a controlled environment such as a landfill. Researchers continue to explore these options.
Landfills are a growing industry. This element of the landscape poses immense challenges for humans. There are more than 10,000 landfills in Canada and they are rapidly reaching their capacity.
We’re able to shave off a fraction of the waste by re-directing it to recycling, about 28% of it. But the rest heads to the landfill, is shipped abroad—still a problem, but now someone else’s—or is burned. The export of waste is becoming less appealing for those in receipt. Increasingly, they’re beginning to reject these “gifts” we’re offering.
Landfills and Wildlife
Landfills are an assured source of food for our feathered friends. In various landfills, we can always find our steadfast gulls, never one to overlook an opportunity. Elsewhere, landfills will also draw starlings, as well as bald eagles to note another two loyal patrons. Neither are above taking advantage of the smorgasbord on offer at a landfill.
It’s a double-edged sword for the gull. While a landfill appears to be a veritable banquet, it is also filled with a host of non-organic materials. And gulls are open to all and sundry where food is concerned. Gulls, in particular, are exceedingly adept at dealing with unwanted items entering their digestive system. They simply regurgitate the material and job done. But what remains can still cause a problem.
Sharp-edged materials can potentially poke holes in their digestive tracts causing any number of infections. The same would be true of any animals dining on our waste, such as bald eagles or starlings. For instance, researchers have discovered starlings are ingesting food containing chemicals from flame retardants. It’s suggested insects such as crickets in mainland Canada are ingesting the chemicals. These chemicals are simply being passed on to starlings when they ingest the insect.
Landfills and Pollution
Landfills are admittedly a physical eyesore in the landscape. But after all, no one goes to a landfill expecting beauty. The landfill at Robin Hood Bay has its own share of challenges. Much to the dismay of many citizens, a portion of the material deposited in the landfill blows away in high winds. This affects adjacent areas. Complaints are also raised about the other fringe benefits of landfills—leachate and methane gas.
Both leachate and methane gas are expected consequences of the vast stew of materials present in a landfill—organic waste, metals, plastic, rubber and so on. When rain water filtres through this conglomeration, what leaches through has collected the myriad chemicals from the various materials. To manage this waste, certain measures are taken to try and collect this toxic soup—with more or less success. More on that a little later.
Similarly, the solid waste, a portion being organic naturally undergoes aerobic or oxygen-assisted decomposition. Although, it is not until this process of decomposition takes place in anaerobic conditions when methane gas is generated. Anaerobic conditions occur within the dense mass of waste where there is little to no access for oxygen.
Landfills like Robin Hood Bay now possess systems of piping that collect the leachate and the methane gas. It’s no easy task. Efforts are seriously being made to address the pollution generated by the landfill. However, at Robin Hood Bay, despite the efforts being made to limit the waste, some of it continues to escape and diminish the quality and aesthetics of neighbouring waterways and regions.
So, citizens have been forced to step up and take the municipality to task. What’s been done is wonderful, but more needs to be accomplished. Which is simply to say, the job is rarely ever complete.
Landfills are generally multimillion dollar endeavours. From the engineers who design the landfill to the men and women receiving residents who are bringing their waste to those who operate the vehicles used to manage the waste—compacting the waste and moving it around. People are also required to focus on public relations and so on. For instance, Robin Hood Bay offers tours of their facility. Any landfill waste management organisation will employ hundreds of individuals.
Moreover, there is a periodic need for upgrades. These are usually in the neighbourhood of millions of dollars. Robin Hood Bay recently undertook upgrades to their facility which cost $56 million. As we know, the amount of waste we create is increasing. So, it’s expected that how we manage that waste is going to change and it will continue to demand more money.
Not a Wasted Landscape
A landfill is certainly not reflective of the many landscapes often endeared in our hearts—those by the seashore or with mountains splendidly soaring in the background. Still, they represent a landscape governed by a considerable number of meanings. For those of us dotted around Placentia Bay, it is our waste that helps Robin Hood Bay to grow. Our distance doesn’t abrogate our need to be actively aware of how this mixture of meanings come together, forging this landscape.
Despite the lack of appeal of landfills, they are central to our lives and will continue to play a role in all their myriad facets.
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Baggaley, Kate 2018 “Seagulls are eating all of our garbage” Popular Science https://www.popsci.com/seagull-garbage-eating-plastic-litter/
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Deer, Ryan 2021 “Landfills: We’re Running Out of Space” Roadrunner: Smarter Recycling https://www.roadrunnerwm.com/blog/landfills-were-running-out-of-space
Friends of Sugarloaf Path 2017 “St. John’s Dirty Secret”
Ian Froude’s response to “City of St. John’s – Clean Up Robin Hood Bay Landfill, Skerries Brook & Sugarloaf Path” https://www.change.org/p/mayor-breen-city-of-st-john-s-clean-up-sugarloaf-path-skerries-brook/responses/42499
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador 2017 “SOLID WASTE MANAGEMENT STRATEGY
PERFORMANCE MONITORING REPORT” https://www.gov.nl.ca/ecc/files/waste-management-pdf-wm-performance-monitoring-report-may-2017.pdf
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Tamoor, M. et al. 2021 “Potential Use of Microbial Enzymes for the Conversion of Plastic Waste Into Value-Added Products: A Viable Solution” https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2021.777727/full
The Canadian Press 2018 “Canadian study finds seagulls eating drywall, metal among other garbage” CBC-NL https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/seagulls-eat-garbage-1.4488494
The Conference of Canada 2023 “Waste Generation” https://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/waste-aspx/
Ward, Rachel, Cashore, Harvey,Lavigne, Chantal, and Shochat, Gil 2022 “Illegal Canadian trash keeps ending up overseas. And the federal government won’t say who’s shipping it” https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/fifth-estate-recycling-1.6410657
Westreich, Sam 2022 “How do Microplastics Enter Our Bodies?” https://medium.com/a-microbiome-scientist-at-large/how-do-microplastics-enter-our-bodies-d0db3272ad6e