What happens when landfills are full?

What if I told you that the average person throws away 27 pounds of food each month? That’s a lot of wasted food and more importantly, it’s a whole lot of wasted resources. Food takes up about half of the total trash volume in landfills. This means that as time goes on, we are filling our landfills quicker than ever before because we’re not recycling or composting nearly enough waste.

With the human population escalating, it’s not a surprise that the amount of garbage is increasing. There are roughly about 8 billion people on earth. Can you imagine how much garbage each person generates each day? When you think about it, that’s plenty of trash to consider!

We dispose of our trash outside once the bins inside are full. On a daily basis, the garbage collector empties our trash cans as well as our neighbor’s. Once it’s out of our sight, what happens next? It’s not our problem anymore but the garbage collector’s right? Once his team has sorted out everything and separates the recyclables, a large truck drops by once in a while to transport this collection to the nearest landfill.

This was a problem that was not foreseen hundreds of years ago. Garbage was basically thrown into small piles or areas known as dumps. Little did we know it was going to be a big problem. As time passes, this practice is frowned upon because more people are aware of the negative impacts it has on the environment. Yesterday’s problem has become the current and future generation’s problem to solve.

Dump vs Landfill

What’s the difference between a dump and a landfill? It’s the same, right? Wrong. Most times, people will associate a landfill with a dump or vice versa. Unlike landfills, dumps are last minute solutions created by digging a large hole under the ground. Trash is basically thrown here. This unplanned and unregulated act is not only dangerous but extremely harmful to the environment.

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With a landfill, it is carefully constructed by experts, making sure trash does not interact with the environment around it. This means it cannot touch the surrounding air, groundwater or rain. To do this, a liner made of clay or plastic is placed on top of the soil that will be used as landfill. 

Parts of a Landfill

1. Bottom Liner: 

Before anything happens, a selected piece of land that is about to be transformed into a landfill needs to meet environmental regulations. As mentioned earlier, a thick bottom liner made of compacted clay and/or plastic will need to be fitted. The material needs to be durable and puncture-resistant. The sides of the landfill are sealed with a geotextile mat for added protection. Its sole purpose is for buried waste to avoid direct contact with the surrounding soil and groundwater. 

2. Leachate Collection Pipe: 

On top of that, you have this particular kind of pipe that penetrates through clay, plastic liner, geotextile mat and gravel. Any rainwater collected in the landfill and secreted from garbage as it deteriorates is called leachate. It passes through the pipe and comes out through a leachate pond. Most of the time, it consists of pollutants and harmful “garbage juice”. 

3: New and Old Cells: 

After the drainage layer and soil layer, you have new and old cells. This is the biggest and heaviest layer in any landfill because it takes up so much space. In some movies, you might have seen heavy duty machinery that compresses junk material (like an old car) into a miniature version. This is exactly what goes on except with garbage. Shredded trash is compacted, organized and deposited into these compact spaces. 

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4: Cover/Cap: 

After this has been done, a cover or a cap consisting of compacted soil or cover is placed on top. Its main purpose is to seal off the landfill’s top and reduce unwanted odor. It acts as an extra barrier from lingering pests such as birds and vermin. Once the seal has been completed, a permanent layer consisting of polyethylene plastic, compacted soil and topsoil is added. Doing this greatly benefits our environment because it assists vegetation and eliminates erosion.

Common questions about what happens when landfills are full

Where does the trash go?

Before trash is sent to the landfill, handlers make sure it is segregated. Biodegradable waste can be converted to compost and used as organic plant fertilizer. Not only does it aid in vegetation growth but also becomes useful if you are keen on growing a garden.

Non biodegradables that can be segregated are metal, paper etc. Some materials like glass bottles can be reused while other materials that contain chemicals are handled delicately. Some medical waste is likely to be burned to avoid contamination. Anything else that can’t be dealt with is sent to the landfill.

Are landfills enough?

With people producing more trash than ever, landfills are simply not enough to hold all of that. After all, they are finite spaces that eventually get filled up. This becomes a bigger problem for developing countries since they have a smaller land mass. Because of limitations, they have to resort to other creative ways of eliminating that trash.

What are other alternatives aside from landfills?

1. Burning:

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When landfills are full, burning excesses is a popular form of elimination especially among developing countries. However, it produces emissions and toxins that are harmful to people and the environment. In other countries, the act of burning trash is converted into useful energy.

2. Recycling:

Before it hits the landfill, materials like wood, glass and paper (there are more!) can be recycled and reused. It drastically reduces the imprint on the environment considering they are made of raw materials and the energy used to create them. 

3: Composting:

Upon careful segregation, biodegradable wastes can be converted into excellent composts. The natural process of decomposition turns waste into plant fertilizer when executed correctly. It can be used to grow more organic fruits or vegetables.

Landfills are greatly beneficial both for human beings and the environment. We need to take into consideration that they are the perfect location for storing garbage. However, to a certain extent, landfills get filled quite easily. On our part, each of us can slow down the process by doing our part by changing our habits when it comes to disposing trash. This would mean applying the 3 R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle.

What happens when landfills are full?


We have to rethink how we are doing it all. It is important to consider our footprint! Susan has been writing on this blog since 2020, but it has been on her mind for a lot longer!

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