How is a landfill different from a dump?

If asked where garbage goes after the garbage truck picks it up and takes it away, someone might say, “The dump.” In fact, today garbage is taken to a “landfill.” So, what makes a landfill different from a dump?

Throughout history, garbage has been thrown in fields, ditches, waterways, and even streets. At one time, many communities had a town dump. Usually near the edge of town or just outside, the town dump was open for people to throw away their trash. People would sometimes dump their own garbage and then pick through other people’s trash and take home items they found. Even when existing rules were obeyed, toxic waste could seep into the ground and cause problems to underground water and streams and rivers.

In 1976, the United States government passed a law known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. This law put new rules into effect to protect water supplies and control how trash was thrown away. As a result, many dumps were closed or changed to follow the new rules.

Today dumps are illegal, and trash is taken to a landfill. Landfills are built to take our trash and keep the environment safe. A landfill has a liner system at the bottom to catch toxic waste that could pollute our water. As trash is piled and smashed down to “fill” the landfill, a hill forms.

When it rains, some water runs down the side of the landfill hill into ditches that guide this storm water to a special pond. On the other hand, water that soaks into the landfill when it rains goes down through the trash and becomes a liquid called “leachate.” (Leachate is water that has mixed with chemicals and bacteria as it has soaked down through the trash.) On the floor of the landfill liner, the leachate is collected in pipes. These pipes either take it to a special pond or pump it back onto the landfill hill. When leachate is pumped onto the top of the landfill and runs back through the trash, it can speed up the breakdown of the garbage, making it rot more quickly.

At the end of every work day at the landfill, the trash is covered with soil. This keeps garbage from blowing away, reduces the smell, and also keeps rodents and birds from digging into the trash.

So, a dump was mostly just a place, but a landfill is really a system for burying trash and taking good care of our water, both underground and in streams and rivers.  The next time someone asks where your garbage goes, make sure to tell them garbage goes to a landfill, not the dump!

For more about what happens to waste, read Waste Sorting: Willy Wonka-style,  Waste in Focus, and More “Trashy” Reads.

Photo credit: © hxdyl | iStock | Thinkstock

Thanks to Northwest Indiana Solid Waste District for the information in this article.  The landfill description discussed here is based on its two landfills: the Newton County Landfill in Morocco, IN and Liberty Landfill near Buffalo, IN.

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