Hot Air

Why no one needs a bigger hole in the ground and more gas in the air


Those egg cartons we threw away last week, crusted with dried yolk and unrecyclable? I figured they were garbage. But lawyers representing Solano County, practicing what I call semantics dumpster-diving, want to pull those cartons out of the trash and pop them into a more convenient category known as interstate commerce. Call it commerce, and suddenly they can get around those pesky Solano County voters who already decided, via Measure E, that they don’t want the Potrero Hills Landfill enlarged.

Those voters said that 95,000 tons of garbage from other counties is enough. But where there is money to be made by trash-hauling companies and critically important climate issues for local government to avoid, lawyers can be hired to get around voters and make a bigger landfill possible. Some people won’t notice or care.

But we need to notice and care very much, and not only because Napa and Sonoma counties also export garbage to Solano County. Even if we never see this landfill or the others to which our garbage goes, the quality of our lives is increasingly determined by the last place anyone would look for answers to climate protection: the dump. So while the Solano haulers and county supervisors might prefer to signal the bulldozers to begin, they are for the moment tied up in a legal contest.

We owe a debt to the Sierra Club for stepping in to file a lawsuit, ostensibly to stand in the way of a landfill expansion that would fill in (read: destroy) wetlands. But the bigger picture thinking behind the Sierra Club’s willingness to block business as usual between haulers and local governments is this: landfill management has got to change soon and change radically in order to prevent one of the worst and most overlooked contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, methane gas, produced by buried organic garbage in landfills.

Methane can make up more than half of landfill gasses. Its contribution to global warming is between 25 and 72 times greater than that of CO2. While concern about greenhouse gas emissions has prompted efforts to capture methane and turn it into electricity, there are serious problems with this solution, including greed-induced tricks to increase methane production in order to increase profits from its energy production. Landfill operators are allowed a great deal of leeway to manage (and mismanage) a gas that seriously threatens our climate and does not need to be produced in the first place.

The Sierra Club’s recent “Landfill Gas to Energy Task Force Report” states that “even the best landfill gas-collection systems are able to capture only a portion of the gas generated. While the amount of landfill gas that is captured can be measured, there is currently no way to measure directly the amount of gas generated within the accumulated waste or the amount that escapes uncontrolled to the environment. Guesstimates of gas collection efficiency vary . . . from as low as 20 percent to as much as 75 percent, and sometimes even greater than 90 percent.” The organization advocates that organic material be removed from the waste stream altogether so that methane gas is not created in the first place.

That big, green yard-waste container that gets picked up every week and those local composting workshops are part of a big-picture attempt to reduce and eventually eliminate the amount of organic materials taken to landfills. Not every community is supporting this effort yet. But organizations like the Sierra Club are pressing for urgent change in the regulation of our waste streams and our landfills. Members of that organization believe strongly—as do many other thinking people—that there should be no organic debris getting buried and creating methane gas and CO2.

Yet as long as governments ignore progressive waste-management strategies, and as long as money can be made and social problems buried by creating bigger holes in the ground, I suspect there will be lawyers getting hired to prevent progressive action. Some of them may even practice semantics dumpster-diving, upholding haulers’ rights to profit, knocking over voter decisions and helping to keep methane seeping out of landfills and into the atmosphere in one way or another.

Sonoma County Library