From Odor Control to Cancer Risks: Unveiling the Hidden Dangers of Landfills

November 6, 2021 in environment, Sustainability

Article summary and Key takeaways: Landfills are commonly used for waste disposal, but understanding their construction, working, and environmental effects is crucial for sustainable waste management. The construction process involves site selection, excavation, liner installation, waste placement, and cover placement. Landfills have significant environmental impacts, including air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil contamination, and habitat destruction. They also pose health risks to nearby residents and workers. Common problems associated with landfills include odor management, leachate management, methane emissions, and the need for proper waste disposal solutions. Alternatives to landfills include recycling, composting, and waste-to-energy technologies. Operational processes of landfills include waste compaction, daily cover placement, leachate collection and treatment, gas management and utilization, and landfill closure and post-closure care. Research is ongoing to understand the potential health risks associated with living near landfills. It is important to prioritize sustainable waste management practices and explore alternative solutions to mitigate the negative effects of landfills and create a cleaner, healthier future.

Construction, Working, and Environmental Effects of Landfills

Waste management is a critical aspect of modern society, ensuring the proper disposal and treatment of waste materials. One commonly used method of waste disposal is landfilling. However, understanding the construction, working, and environmental effects of landfills is crucial in order to mitigate potential negative impacts and explore sustainable waste management alternatives.

Landfill Construction Process

Site Selection and Preparation

The first step in landfill construction is site selection and preparation. This involves identifying suitable areas that meet specific criteria, such as distance from residential areas, geological stability, and accessibility. Once a site is chosen, it is cleared of vegetation and prepared for excavation.

Excavation and Liner Installation

During excavation, the landfill area is dug out to create cells or trenches where waste will be placed. To prevent contamination of soil and groundwater, liners made of impermeable materials, such as clay or synthetic materials, are installed. These liners act as barriers to prevent leachate, a liquid produced from decomposing waste, from seeping into the ground.

Waste Placement and Compaction

After liner installation, waste is placed in the designated cells and compacted using heavy machinery. Compaction reduces the volume of waste and increases its stability, preventing settlement and potential damage to the liner. Waste is typically placed in layers, with each layer compacted before the next one is added.

Cover Placement and Closure Procedures

Once a landfill cell is filled, a cover layer is placed on top of the waste. The cover acts as a barrier, helping to control odors, reduce erosion, and prevent the entry of rainwater. After closure, a final cover is placed on the entire landfill area to prevent further infiltration and facilitate future land use.

Environmental Impacts of Landfills

Air Pollution from Landfill Gases

One of the major environmental impacts of landfills is the release of landfill gases into the atmosphere. As waste decomposes, it produces gases such as methane, carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, contributing to climate change, while VOCs can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, a harmful air pollutant.

Water Pollution and Leachate Management

Landfills can also have significant impacts on water quality. Rainwater that comes into contact with waste can become contaminated with various pollutants, forming leachate. If not properly managed, leachate can seep into groundwater or surface water, leading to water pollution. Effective leachate management systems, such as collection and treatment, are essential to prevent contamination.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Climate Change

Landfills are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Methane, a byproduct of waste decomposition, has a much greater warming potential than carbon dioxide. Landfill gas collection systems can help mitigate these emissions by capturing and utilizing methane for energy generation. Utilizing landfill gas as an alternative to fossil fuels can contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.

Soil Contamination and Impact on Ecosystems

Landfills can lead to soil contamination through the infiltration of leachate and the release of hazardous substances. Contaminated soil can negatively impact nearby ecosystems, affecting plant and animal life. Additionally, the physical disruption of land during landfill construction can result in habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity.

Habitat Destruction and Loss of Biodiversity

Landfill construction and operation often involve the destruction of natural habitats, displacing wildlife and disrupting ecosystems. The loss of biodiversity can have long-term ecological consequences, affecting the balance of ecosystems and the overall health of the environment.

Effects of Landfills on Human Health

Potential Health Risks for Nearby Residents and Workers

Living near landfills can pose potential health risks for nearby residents and workers. The release of landfill gases and airborne pollutants can lead to respiratory issues and increase the risk of developing respiratory diseases. Exposure to hazardous substances present in landfill leachate can also have adverse health effects.

Respiratory Issues and Exposure to Hazardous Substances

Inhalation of landfill gases, such as methane and VOCs, can cause respiratory issues, including asthma and other respiratory diseases. Exposure to hazardous substances, such as heavy metals, can also pose risks to human health, potentially leading to organ damage and an increased risk of certain cancers.

Spread of Diseases and Public Health Concerns

Improper waste management practices in landfills can contribute to the spread of diseases. Waste can attract disease-carrying pests, such as rodents and flies, increasing the risk of disease transmission to nearby populations. Additionally, inadequate sanitation and the potential for contaminated water sources can pose public health concerns.

Common Landfill Problems and Solutions

Odor Management and Control Measures

One common problem associated with landfills is the generation of unpleasant odors. To address this issue, landfills implement odor management and control measures, such as covering waste with daily or interim covers, installing gas collection systems to capture odorous gases, and implementing odor control technologies.

Leachate Management and Treatment

Effective leachate management is crucial to prevent water pollution. Landfills employ various techniques, such as leachate collection systems and treatment facilities, to minimize the release of contaminated liquids. Treatment processes, including biological, chemical, and physical methods, are used to remove pollutants from leachate before it is discharged.

Methane Emissions and Gas Collection Systems

To mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, landfills utilize gas collection systems to capture and utilize methane. Gas collection systems consist of wells and pipes that extract methane from the landfill. The captured methane can be used as a renewable energy source, reducing the reliance on fossil fuels and contributing to a more sustainable energy mix.

Need for Proper Waste Disposal Solutions

One of the fundamental challenges associated with landfills is the need for proper waste disposal solutions. Implementing sustainable waste management practices, such as recycling, waste reduction, and composting, can help divert waste from landfills. These practices reduce the volume of waste requiring disposal and conserve resources.

Alternatives to Landfills

Recycling and Waste Reduction Practices

Recycling is an effective waste management strategy that reduces the volume of waste going to landfills. By separating recyclable materials and reintroducing them into the production cycle, valuable resources can be conserved. Waste reduction practices, such as minimizing packaging and promoting reusable products, further contribute to sustainable waste management.

Composting and Organic Waste Management

Composting is another alternative to landfilling, particularly for organic waste. By decomposing organic materials in controlled conditions, composting produces nutrient-rich soil amendments. Proper organic waste management reduces the generation of methane in landfills and promotes soil health, contributing to sustainable agriculture and landscaping practices.

Waste-to-Energy Technologies and Facilities

Waste-to-energy technologies offer an alternative approach to landfilling by converting waste into usable energy. Processes such as incineration and anaerobic digestion can generate electricity or heat from waste materials. These technologies help reduce the volume of waste sent to landfills while providing a renewable energy source.

Landfill Diversion Programs and Sustainable Waste Management Strategies

Landfill diversion programs aim to minimize the amount of waste sent to landfills by promoting sustainable waste management practices. These programs include initiatives such as source separation, extended producer responsibility, and public awareness campaigns. By diverting waste from landfills, resources can be conserved, and environmental impacts minimized.

Operational Processes of Landfills

Waste Compaction and Daily Cover Placement

Once waste is placed in a landfill, it is important to compact it to minimize air spaces and reduce settling. Waste compaction increases the stability of the landfill and ensures optimal use of available space. Additionally, a daily cover is placed on the exposed waste at the end of each working day to prevent the attraction of pests and control odors.

Leachate Collection and Treatment

Leachate collection systems are designed to capture and remove leachate generated in landfills. These systems consist of pipes and collection wells that transport leachate to treatment facilities. Treatment processes may include biological, chemical, or physical methods to remove contaminants and minimize environmental impacts.

Gas Management and Utilization

Gas management is an integral part of landfill operation. Gas collection systems, including extraction wells and pipes, are used to capture landfill gases, primarily methane. Collected gas can be utilized as an energy source through processes such as electricity generation or direct combustion. Proper gas management helps minimize greenhouse gas emissions and reduce environmental impacts.

Landfill Closure and Post-Closure Care

After a landfill reaches its capacity, it undergoes closure procedures to ensure long-term environmental protection. Closure involves placing a final cover over the landfill area and implementing measures to control erosion and surface water runoff. Post-closure care involves monitoring and maintenance activities to detect and address any potential environmental issues that may arise after landfill closure.

Research on Potential Health Risks

Studies Investigating the Links Between Living Near Landfills and Cancer Risks

Research has focused on investigating potential links between living near landfills and cancer risks. Studies have found associations between proximity to landfills and increased incidence of certain cancers, such as lung, bladder, and liver cancers. However, the exact mechanisms and causal relationships are still being studied, and further research is needed to fully understand the potential health risks.

Exposure to Hazardous Substances and Pollutants

Exposure to hazardous substances and pollutants present in landfills is a concern for human health. Heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and other toxic substances can contaminate air, water, and soil, posing risks to nearby populations. Ongoing research aims to better understand the extent of exposure and associated health effects, helping to inform mitigation measures and protect public health.


Landfills play a significant role in waste management, but understanding their construction, working, and environmental effects is crucial for sustainable waste management practices. Landfills have potential environmental impacts, including air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil contamination, and habitat destruction. They also pose health risks to nearby residents and workers. However, through proper management and the exploration of alternative waste management strategies, such as recycling, composting, and waste-to-energy technologies, we can mitigate the negative effects of landfills and work towards a more sustainable future. It is imperative that we prioritize sustainable waste management practices and continue to research and implement solutions that protect both the environment and human health.

Join the movement towards sustainable waste management! Together, we can make a difference and create a cleaner, healthier future for our planet and future generations.

Question 1: What are the environmental impacts of landfills?
Answer: Landfills can contaminate soil and water, release greenhouse gases, and contribute to air pollution.

Question 2: What is the result of the construction of a landfill?
Answer: The result of constructing a landfill is the creation of a designated area for waste disposal.

Question 3: How does construction waste affect the environment?
Answer: Construction waste can contribute to pollution, depletion of natural resources, and habitat destruction.

Question 4: What are the environmental impacts of construction?
Answer: Construction can lead to deforestation, soil erosion, air and water pollution, and increased carbon emissions.


About the author 

Jordan Miller

Hi there, I'm Jordan! I graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in Environmental Policy, but my real education has been in the field, turning theory into practice. My days are filled with implementing sustainable solutions and teaching communities how to embrace an eco-friendly lifestyle. I believe small changes can make a big impact, and I'm here to guide you through every step of going green.