Methane from dumps (landfill gas)

The best thing that ever happened to the garbage industry was the energy crisis, as expressed by peak oil concerns and global warming.  Suddenly this dirty industry, best known for rotting, smelly dumps, was able to start capturing a stinky gas that was coming out of its dumps and lo and behold, it was flammable and a component of natural gas. By the arcane economic calculus of garbage collection, this gas actually belonged not to the citizens who had dumped the garbage, as an unanticipated perquisite, but to the garbage company itself. Suddenly the door had opened and they could reposition themselves as energy companies. All they had to do was collect the gas, burn it in an electrical generator and sell or use the electricity.Gone were the days of dismal failure when they tried to get energy by actually burning solid garbage, or at least the paper, wood and plastic. Gone were the investments in steam boilers, only to discover that nobody wanted the steam. Everybody uses electricity and it travels on cheap wires, not expensive steam pipes.

Wonder of wonders, not only were they suddenly energy mavens, with the advent of climate change there were new chits called “Carbon credits”. Not only could they sell the electricity but when they burned methane which otherwise was headed for the high stratosphere to participate in global warming, they got credits for carbon avoidance which they could also sell to polluters or SUV drivers. Oh, happy days!

The Dutch, unlike Americans, are participants in the Kyoto Protocol. Dutch companies need to garner carbon credits to keep operating. So they built a dump in Brazil and made sure to throw lots and lots of sugar cane bagasse and other biological inputs into it, so that the methane would come pouring out. It didn’t work well but that’s another story. See the article here. This creates a pressure to destroy valuable organic matter in dumps.

Methane is produced because dumps are anaerobic – there is no air getting into them down below. Thus any organic matter is decomposed by anaerobic bacteria which produce methane. Not much – barely five percent of the dry weight at best, but it adds up. The other 95% of the organic matter remains as a slime which covers the steel, sofas, refrigerators and other things which also have no business being in a dump. So the whole decomposition is a disaster, but garbagemen are paid handsomely to not think that way.

The methane that does come out is mixed with nitrogen and carbon dioxide so it is only about 70% methane. Only a huge dump provides enough to be worth burning for heat. And there is a much more important use for all that organic matter. It has no business being in a dump in the first place.

As you can see, the collection of methane is a scam, to turn a tiny fraction of organic matter into a dilute gas with marginal value, but artificial props keep it going.  From a ZW point of view, it would be far better to keep every scrap of organic matter away from dumps entirely. It should all be turned into a compost because it is a critical output of the agricultural system. A ZW analysis is unambiguous – this output must be processed as compost and returned to soils to close the system. The value of this closed cycle far exceeds the trivial value of a bit of methane. Even just the synthetic fertilizer that compost can make unnecessary represents a gigantic investment in energy. My guess is that the more that organic matter is put into dumps, the more fossil fuel our society burns to upgrade the depleted soils. And compost adds much more than nitrogen to soils – it adds body and digested carbon as well.

As the garbage industry plies its pernicious trade, and as gullible environmentalists get on the methane bandwagon, you are going to hear a lot about methane in coming years. Remember that it is a scam for selling dumps. Global warming cannot simply trump soil depletion, but even if your focus is on global warming, it is probably worse, the more that methane is captured. Sure, capture methane arising from past mistakes burying organic matter. But that is not how the scam works – the industry will try to argue for more and more dumping of organic matter in the future as well. The whole process is going to be driven by global warming credits – in the US as well as Holland.