Landfills leak methane which kills the climate. What is Colorado doing about it?

When it comes to greenhouse gases and climate destruction, coal-fired power plants and gasoline-powered cars tend to capture the most pain.

But Colorado, like all other states, has another major source of greenhouse gas emissions right under our feet: garbage.

Here and across the country, rotting garbage and organic waste buried in landfills generate vast amounts of methane, which is dozens of times more potent at altering the climate than carbon dioxide if the methane is allowed to escape.

The nonprofit Watchdog Environmental Integrity Project is highlighting the worst offenders of landfills across the country in a new report, Trashing the Climate. Thankfully, Colorado doesn’t make the top 10, either the worst individual landfills or the worst states overall for free-flying landfill methane production.

The alleged worst offender is a North Carolina landfill near Raleigh in Sampson County, which according to the EPA’s annual greenhouse gas calculator spews 825,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent after the methane multiplier is factored in. Georgia and Ohio, the report said.

By comparison, the large and soon to be closed Larimer County Landfill in southwest Fort Collins emits 196,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually. To put that into perspective, the Comanche Energy Complex in Pueblo emits nearly 8 million tons annually and the cement kiln in Florence emits 684,000 tons.

The national report says the combined methane emissions from all landfills have the same impact on climate as 66 million gas-powered cars a year or 79 coal-fired power plants.

Methane leaking from landfills remains a major source of greenhouse gases causing climate change, as methane is much more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. (Source: Environmental Integrity Project)

The EPA and environmental groups, who know you can’t just stop burying trash all at once in a modern economy, want landfills to capture methane in piping systems and use it on-site to generate electricity, replacing fossil fuels uncorked from the ground, or use it as a renewable gaseous fuel in vehicles. The latest alternative is to burn the methane on site, which isn’t ideal, but it converts the climate-changing multiples of methane into less harmful carbon dioxide.

Colorado health officials agree, and in 2021, the EPA approved its own landfill methane plan. methane to existing pipelines that feed vehicle refueling stations.

The state continues to evaluate ways to further reduce methane from landfills, a health department spokesman wrote in an email response.

The state Division of Air Pollution Control is putting the finishing touches on a new credit trading system for recovered methane. Rules passed in late 2022 require utilities that distribute natural gas to account for methane leaks and greenhouse gas emissions from their networks and start reducing them. They can build or acquire credits from new landfill methane collection, agricultural manure collection, or plants that collect biogas from municipal wastewater treatment.

The Colorado Energy Office, which monitors the state’s greenhouse gas reduction plan, has mentioned a number of landfill projects it hopes will spread across the state.

At Front Range Landfill in Erie, Aria Energy operates a methane-fueled electric generator that can power approximately 3,000 homes, with the United Power cooperative purchasing electricity for the grid.

A similarly sized methane generator runs on gas produced from the closed Lowry landfill and nearby still-open Denver Arapahoe disposal site, northwest of Aurora Reservoir.

The Larimer County Landfill installed natural gas-fired generators in 2010, and the 1.6 megawatts of electricity produced is purchased by the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association. One megawatt can serve 400 to 1,000 homes.

X3CNG operates a collection of commercial truck CNG filling stations and government gas-running fleets up and down the Front Range. The company says it is purchasing equivalent quantities of landfill and agricultural methane to fuel nearly 100% of its needs and is looking to develop more sources of methane in Western landfills which do not currently collect all of their spilled methane.

There is a solution to breaking the mindset, but getting there takes tons of work. The best way to reduce methane is to put less rotting stuff in those landfills in the first place. Colorado falls behind in this goal, with waste stream deviations of only about 15 percent statewide compared to national averages near 30 percent.

A series of recent state and local moves give environmental groups some hope for diversion from landfills. The producer responsibility law requires packaging manufacturers to pay taxes in a new statewide recycling support system, bringing more curbside composting and recycling to underserved communities.

Denver, meanwhile, has voted to extend mandatory recycling to multi-unit buildings.

Americans throw away 40 percent of their food, says the Environmental Integrity Project report. Those wasted calories start producing methane within a year.

On a global scale, if wasted food were a country, the report said, it would be the third largest emitter of global greenhouse gases, behind China and the United States.

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