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Why Waste Diversion is Not a Waste of Time

Posted Friday, July 31, 2020

A Learning Environmental Technician’s Perspective

By Emily Knudson-Goerner, Environmental Assistant Student with the RDNO

In my summer student position as an Environmental Assistant, I have learned a lot about environmental impacts caused by the garbage we produce and how they are monitored. There are several short-term and long-term effects associated with RDNO’s current landfills and landfills that have been closed for years. Fortunately, there are also several methods used to manage and reduce these impacts, which have altered my perspective and definition of Diversion and Disposal.

How are landfill-related environmental impacts monitored?

An Environmental Technician monitors many parameters, but groundwater quality offers a perspective that demonstrates the range of impacts regional garbage has on the environment at or surrounding a landfill. Groundwater monitoring helps determine the movement of water throughout and beyond the landfill footprint and its relationship to the water that leaches through landfilled garbage, either rain or groundwater. Water that interacts with garbage is called “leachate” or more specifically, “landfill leachate”.

Landfill leachate encounters many substances, including any hazardous material initially landfilled and any hazardous material formed by ongoing interactions between materials. Garbage can mix with, or dissolve in, water leaching through the landfill, changing the previously “clean” water into contaminated water or leachate. This is another reason why it is very important to keep certain materials, such as batteries, fertilizers, electronics, and any other waste that is potentially toxic or persists in the environment, out of your garbage.

Additionally, landfilled organic material like food scraps can generate additional moisture, which increases the production of leachate and methane underground. A simple solution to this is composting!

Ideally, leachate is collected in a secure storage pond. Different management methods are used to dispose of leachate. For example, irrigation and aeration can be used to promote the evaporation of leachate. Unfortunately, not all of the leachate can always be collected, which is why groundwater monitoring is required. The picture to the above is the Greater Vernon Diversion and Disposal Facility (GVDDF) leachate pond, which is built on bedrock and secured by a concrete dam and clay liner.

Notes from the Field!
As an environmental technician, I monitor the movement of leachate by sampling the monitoring wells to make sure the contaminants in the leachate do not flow beyond the landfill footprint and end up in other water systems and environments. The locations of the monitoring wells are based on the flow patterns of the groundwater below and around the landfill. Various wells at each facility are located upstream, downstream, and cross-gradient with respect to the landfill footprint. These wells can sometimes extend as deep as 40-50 metres!

Below is a picture of my setup from a recent sampling event at the GVDDF. Water is pumped from the 2” diameter monitoring well until parameters such as temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and pH are stabilized. Samples are then collected to be taken to an accredited lab. The results are discussed in the RDNO’s annual Environmental Monitoring Report (posted on the RDNO website), which is submitted as required by the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.


How can you do your part to reduce landfill-related environmental impacts?

When purchasing necessities or other items, ask yourself, where will the item end up when it no longer has a use?

When an item is no longer useful, it is important to consider the materials it is made of. Thinking about the contents of something helps to give some perspective on the environmental impacts it will have when disposed of and can also create some incentive to dispose of the item properly, rather than just tossing it in the landfill. For example, any potentially toxic or dangerous materials, such as heavy metals or strong cleaning agents, can have a huge impact on nearby ecosystems and groundwater systems. The most sustainable option is to rethink your purchase and research a possible alternative.

Ultimately, reducing purchasing and consumption is the most effective way to minimize environmental impacts. If there is no alternative or sustainable option, make sure to properly dispose of the item properly. Some resources for more information on sustainable disposal include rdno.ca and RCBC Recycling Hotline.

In existing and closed landfills, garbage is not simply buried and then forgotten. Depending on the item, garbage can persist in landfills for decades, centuries or even millennia. It can alter the environment around it throughout it’s’ lifetime, emphasizing the time required for materials to degrade. This makes a landfills’ environment just as complex as natural ecosystems, if not more.

Accordingly, communities must consider the meaning of diversion and disposal to help minimize their environmental impacts.