Connecting state and local government leaders
Despite local efforts, millions of tons of the powerful greenhouse gas, mostly from thrown-out food, are being released into the atmosphere. In a letter, cities have asked the EPA for grants, trainings and stronger regulations.
Millions of tons of methane—a greenhouse gas that’s 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide—is escaping into the atmosphere from the nation’s landfills, according to a recent study from the Environmental Protection Agency. That amount is roughly equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions produced by 15 coal-fired power plants.
While a number of cities like Austin, Texas, and Denver have been trying to reduce the methane coming from their landfills, the “pace of current action is not enough,” wrote several mayors Tuesday in a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “We need fast action from the EPA to deliver the methane reductions urgently needed this decade to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” the letter said.
Officials and mayors from Aspen and Boulder, Colorado, Minneapolis, San Jose, California, Seattle and other cities are urging the EPA to provide grants and training to local governments to increase efforts to compost food wastes—decomposing food is the primary source of most landfill methane leaks.
“Delaware is kind of behind the times in that regard,” said Dee Durham, a New Castle County member who signed the letter and co-founder of the advocacy group Plastic Free Delaware. “There's just nothing going on in Delaware regarding food waste and composting, so it's really a concern here. We could really use whatever help the EPA can provide in terms of updating their regs, but also in funding incentives for the state.”
The letter also urges the agency to examine ways to strengthen regulations on landfills with the goal of better controlling harmful emissions.
Landfills are the third highest source of methane emissions after the oil and natural gas industry and the gas released by animals, noted John Coequyt, director of federal policy for the climate think tank RMI.
While the federal government has worked to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses from coal plants to address global warming, “methane emission isn't being treated as powerfully as it should be,” said Brigid Shea, a Travis County, Texas, commissioner, who signed the letter.
The EPA declined to comment on the requests in the letter, but has acknowledged the significance of the issue in its study, calling methane “powerful” and saying that “achieving significant reductions would have a rapid and significant effect on reducing [greenhouse gases].”
According to the study, 61% of the methane coming from landfills is from the food people throw in their waste baskets. Because more food has been ending up in landfills since 1990, the problem has gotten worse over the last three decades. The amount of methane created by food in the landfills has tripled between 1990 and 2020, the study said.
“The most environmentally preferable approach is to prevent food from being wasted,” the study said, noting that one-third of the food produced in the U.S. is not being consumed.
Several cities have been trying to reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills.
In King County, Washington, officials are working with cities and businesses on an initiative to redirect edible food about to be thrown out to food banks. The county estimates that in 2019 homes and businesses threw away 26,458 tons of edible food, which would be enough to feed 150,000 people for a year.
Austin, Texas, has been providing bins to homes to store food and yard waste since 2017 as part of its goal to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills by 90% before 2040. The city eventually sells the compost, which it calls Dillo Dirt, a reference to armadillos.
“People love it and they use it on their lawns and on their gardens, and they pay money for it,” Travis County Commissioner Shea said. “So this is a smart way for cities to recover some of their costs, and it's beneficial to the planet.”
“The federal government should incentivize these programs to encourage more places to take the methane-producing stuff out of the waste stream, much like we've done with recyclables,” Shea added.
Denver raised rates last year for garbage pickup, but made composting and recycling free in order to encourage people to throw less away and recycle or compost more.
“The proposal will not only make recycling and composting easier but will also force people to think about whether the item they’re throwing away should be put in a certain bin,” a 10th grader said at the meeting where the Denver City Council approved the change, according to a local TV station.
Cities in California are also taking action under a state law to reduce food waste and methane emissions. The law, which went into effect in 2022, sets a goal of reducing the amount of organic waste that’s thrown away by 75% by 2025. It requires local governments to create programs to collect organic waste, including food scraps, yard trimmings, cardboard and paper and turn them into compost, biofuel or energy.
In the first half of 2022, local governments said they prevented 116,615 tons of food from being thrown away, on target to meet the law’s goal.
Climate advocacy groups like RMI are urging the EPA to require more landfills to reduce methane emissions. About 40% of landfills nationwide are small enough that they are not required to capture the gas, said Katherine Blauvelt of Industrious Labs, a climate advocacy firm.
The groups have also asked that landfill operators be required to monitor for leaks. RMI’s Coequyt said inexpensive monitors are available.
Pennsylvania earlier this year experimented with flying over landfills and oil, natural gas and coal plants to try to detect methane being released.
And Maryland in June began requiring all landlords, despite their size, to monitor for any leaks and make repairs to minimize emissions.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Kery_Murakami