3 takeaways from GWMS on the future of environmental justice, greenhouse gas emissions and landfill leachate

As landfill operators plan for a future with tighter regulations, more environmental justice considerations, and uncertainty around PFAS and other contaminants, speakers at the Global Waste Management Symposium (GWMS) proposed to new directions to adapt to changing times.

The conference, held February 14-17 in Indian Wells, California, began with a opening speech by James Little from Waste Connections, who called for optimism in the face of climate and regulatory uncertainties, and followed up with numerous sessions dealing with the impact of PFASor per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in leachate management. Here are some of the other highlights from the biennial event:

Environmental justice tools can help plan outreach and permitting processes

New and upcoming environmental justice laws will require operators to better understand the neighborhoods in which they operate, and online screening tools offer important data that can help operators better understand these communities and the burdens they face. may face, said Michael Jensen, senior counsel and director of regulatory affairs for WM.

He highlighted several state and federal resources, including the new Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. The White House announcement last week that the long-awaited tool is now in beta. It uses publicly available data on metrics such as climate and pollution loads, as well as access to affordable housing, clean water and jobs to identify “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution”. The tool is part of the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative, which aims to provide 40% of the benefits of certain federal investments to disadvantaged communities.

WM uses existing US EPA standards EJScreen tool for plotting neighborhood demographics around all of its facilities, including information such as household income and population by race. According to Jensen, WM is the “only company in our industry” to regularly post information on its sites using the tool.

“We’re on a mission to focus on environmental justice because it’s not just a checkbox. We want to be a good neighbor,” Jensen said.

States such as Maryland and California have their own screening tools that provide an “EJ score” for state census tracts, based on factors such as air pollution. These tools also help identify “overlapping burdens” that can provide insight into many environmental justice factors coexisting in a given neighborhood.

Waste facilities will need to become more aware of their own potential impacts and relationships within the communities where they operate. At the same time, they need to be aware of the overlapping impacts a given community might face from other operators’ facilities in the same neighborhood, he said.

New Jersey pass a law in 2020 which requires some operators to consider environmental justice impacts on neighboring communities when applying to expand a facility, build a new one, or reauthorize a permit. Promoters say the law is notable for its mandatory compliance elements and for requiring facilities to consider cumulative human impact, not just individual permit parameters.

Still, Michael Trupin, head of consulting services at Trinity Consultants, said these tough new standards in New Jersey have put the waste industry “in the crosshairs” by delaying some permit approvals and projects for up to a month. year. The change will also result in higher permit fees and require more time and effort to organize the required public hearings and provide documents, he said. The law now also requires operators to complete a detailed Environmental Justice Impact Statement that determines any new environmental or public health impacts on overburdened communities.

“We’re literally talking about community involvement in determining whether or not you get a permit, whether your facility can continue to operate or not,” he said.

More detailed data can help landfills better manage greenhouse gas emissions

As landfill operators consider how to limit impacts on neighborhoods, they can also monitor climate change impacts more closely through in-depth analysis of data from daily operations, said Mark Adams, head of the engineering for the central region of Waste Connections.

Adams advocated for the creation of site-specific climate impact dashboards for individual landfills to assess each facility’s contributions to the company’s carbon footprint and identify specific areas to reduce those impacts. .

Waste Connections calculates its landfill scorecards using factors such as emissions from construction activities, offsite leachate disposal, onsite vehicle fuel consumption, waste emissions, and data from soil oxidation, added Mary-Leigh Ariens, environmental scientist at Weaver Consultants Group. The dashboard also takes into account emissions reductions and offsets from things like landfill gas collection, on-site recycling, carbon sequestration efforts, and “avoided emissions” through renewable energy projects.

As Waste Connections aims to make its process more accurate through new research and data collection, these dashboards help hold landfills accountable to surrounding communities and demonstrate that “landfills can and should be part of the community’s sustainability plan,” Adams said.

Researchers at North Carolina State University investigated ways to determine the long-term environmental impacts of a typical US solid waste landfill through a modeling study, which showed that Factors such as regional weather, the length of time a landfill collects gas, and the materials used to construct the landfill itself are all important variables that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Landfills account for the vast majority of global corporate greenhouse gas emissions. They too receive more than half of the DMS generated in the United States and are the third largest source of man-made methane, a potent contributor to climate change, said assistant research professor Jim Levis, presenting data from the principal investigator of the study, doctoral student Yixuan Wang.

“Assessing the life cycle of a landfill is tricky because landfills last a long time and different materials degrade at different rates and produce different amounts of emissions,” he said.

While acknowledging such variability among U.S. landfills, the model data offers some options for reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions, Levis said. A point to remember is that localities in warmer regions could improve organics diversion policies to prevent fast-decomposing materials like food and yard waste from ending up in landfills, generating excess gas. Another point to remember is that older Subtitle D landfills that are considering shutting down gas collection systems should instead consider collecting gas longer, “which can result in a substantial reduction in gas emissions at greenhouse effect and globally reduce environmental damage”.

Emerging contaminants will make leachate treatment even more challenging

Speakers also discussed the environmental challenges landfills may face in the near future, particularly in the area of ​​leachate management. Etienne Batiste, a professional engineer at Brown and Caldwell, said managing leachate has become a more complex and expensive undertaking as landfills tackle emerging contaminants – such as PFAS, microplastics, pharmaceuticals and pesticides – and this trend is set to continue.

Landfill operators have generally managed leachate by discharging it to public treatment plants (POTW), but these entities apply stricter rules and stricter discharge limits “either on the volume or on what it is in the leachate that you send,” he said. Batiste recommends that landfill operators build and maintain strong relationships to avoid miscommunication or permission issues down the line.

In a GWMS keynote, James Little, executive vice president of engineering and disposal for Waste Connections, said his company and others are responding by developing treatment and disposal options on leachate site.

Planned federal and state regulations on PFAS could further influence this relationship, but Batiste notes that “POTWs take a proactive approach instead of waiting for regulations.” Some facilities now require landfills to provide minimization plans for PFAS and other contaminants, especially in areas where treatment plants focus more on water reuse projects. This could mean that more landfills will have to organize pre-treatment.

Few regulations currently govern limits for microplastics in drinking water, leachate or wastewater, but Renzun Zhao, an assistant professor at North Carolina A&T State University, said that may change in the near future with plans to law like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which hasn’t budged much since its reintroduction, but has garnered popular support. Zhao presented research on where and how microplastics and nanoplastics appear in leachate, but he stressed that more data and research are needed in the coming years.

“This is an emerging contaminant in landfill leachate. A few years ago, we didn’t talk about PFAS [at GWMS], but this year there were three sessions. Micro- and nanoplastics are the new frontier that PFAS were a few years ago, and they could become a long-lasting problem.

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