I want to share a short video by documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit and director Jessica Edwards. The Landfill is a short (three minute) film about the often overlooked business of dealing with the things we no longer want to deal with - you know, things like old tires, uneaten food, and other gross things that I won’t mention here.
In its short run-time, The Landfill focuses on how some waste items can be used as a resource through the process of creating landfill gas. Essentially, organic compounds decompose releasing methane and other gases that can be burned to generate electricity. This process has several benefits: less material is actually put into a landfill, sparing land from being eaten by our garbage; avoiding methane emissions from decomposing material making it to the atmosphere and contributing to climate change; and finally producing a little bit of electricity.
To put things in perspective, landfill gas is a relatively small source of electricity in the States - somewhere around 5 percent of renewable electricity consumed annually. So, not a huge deal if you look only at the BTUs from landfills (the above stat also includes waste streams such as sludge and agricultural waste), but a bigger deal if you think about the other benefits that go along with using less land for garbage burial or the aforementioned greenhouse gas emissions.
For regular readers of this blog, you might remember that I wrote about Gary Hustwit’s last full length documentary Urbanized a few months ago when I went to the local premier here in Austin. For any fan of urban design, or really design of any kind, it’s worth checking out to see a well produced sample of techniques and challenges facing cities (like transporting people and goods in an efficient way, or ensuring social equity for all stripes of income and class).
Waste is one of many rabbit holes related to cities that Hustwit briefly explores in this short. Just as cities and the people that inhabit them consume vast amounts of water, food, electricity, and land, the very concentration of waste products can be a source of electricity, which has a nice way of bringing things full circle.
In any event, as we keep adding people to the planet, and these people continue to eat food, buy products, and create waste (as people are guaranteed to do), managing waste and reclaiming value from it will be something we won't be able to keep out of sight and out of mind.