Why low waste? Part 1: Nothing breaks down in landfills


I realize that I haven’t fully addressed the reasons why I’m making an effort to live with less waste. The reasons are always bouncing around in my head, so I thought it was time to write them down properly.  So here’s the first part of a three-part series about the big “why?” First, I’m writing about landfills.

Here’s the thing: Nothing breaks down in landfills.

Not plastic or metal, but not compostable things either.

Not paper bags, not newspaper, not cotton balls, not paper towel, not food.



It’s common sense if you think about it, but most of us don’t stop to think about it. (No judgment! This included myself for a very long time.)

It’s easy to think of landfills as giant pits in the ground where things will eventually break down, but that’s actually the exact opposite of what landfills do. Far from being huge compost piles, landfills are extremely complicated, scientifically designed areas to store our waste–essentially, forever.

Landfills are designed to store trash by keeping it separate from the natural environment. Liners are used to prevent the trash from seeping into the groundwater (otherwise, it would enter our waterways and be extremely toxic.) The trash is also compacted, and layered in a way in which only the top bit is exposed to the air–and only until more trash is added.

Because of this, there’s nothing to help things degrade: no microbes, no water, no soil, and no air.

In studies, newspapers in landfills have been found to be readable after decades and food has barely decomposed. It’s not surprising, because that just means that landfills are doing their jobs.

Added to this is the problem of methane gas, which is created as waste breaks down. Methane is a greenhouse gas and a contributor to global warming. Of course, landfills are designed to help reduce the amount of methane created as much as possible, but it is still created. It’s then collected and dealt with (typically by burning it) as it’s extremely dangerous and flammable.

This means that keeping compostable materials in landfills is not just pointless, but also hazardous.

Even worse, much of our garbage doesn’t even end up in landfills–it ends up on our beaches and in our oceans, where its impact is much, much worse.

The takeaways?

  • We need to reduce food waste, and compost the waste that we do create.
  • We need to compost any non-food items that are compostable (such as cotton swabs, wooden chopsticks, and paper towel). These should not be put into landfills.
  • We need to drastically reduce the waste that goes into landfills, by switching to compostable alternatives (such as compostable floss and bamboo toothbrushes) or, when possible, reusables (such as handkerchiefs and no-waste period products).
  • “Biodegradable” or “compostable” plastics mean nothing if they get put in the garbage (and they don’t do much better in the ocean.)

The good news is that with the use of reusables, and better functioning waste management systems, we don’t need to rely on landfills nearly as much. Really, there’s almost nothing that should end up in landfills to begin with. In general, if something can’t be reused, composted, or recycled properly and efficiently, it should be redesigned completely. (And thank goodness, because we’re running out of landfill space.)

I always love to hear your thoughts. Is this surprising, or did you know this beforehand? How do you reduce your waste?


4 responses to “Why low waste? Part 1: Nothing breaks down in landfills”

  1. […] Welcome to my second post addressing some of the reasons why we need to reduce our waste. (Click here for the first post, all about landfills.) […]

  2. […] some of the reasons why we need to reduce our waste. If you haven’t already, check out the first post (about landfills) and the second post (about […]

  3. Oh my goodness, I literally had no idea that nothing breaks down in landfills. Thinking about it now, it makes complete sense, of course it does. Here I am thinking I’m doing my bit by buying makeup packaged in biodegradable paper and I’m putting it in the bin! So, am I to bury it in the garden or put it in the recycling?

    1. Thanks for your comment! It really depends on the product/material in question. Plain paper should be able to be recycled. If you have a compost program that may also be an option, but again you’ll have to look up specifics first. Here’s a general post on the topic of cosmetics packaging: https://leahstellapayne.com/2020/02/09/what-do-i-do-with-old-cosmetics-and-skincare/

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