At FOPAP we have discovered that many published papers use references from other papers, who use references from yet other papers, but the source of many of the assumptions made, are ultimately not traceable. In other words, the sound bites we hear daily concerning the pro's and con's of such issues as recycling, managed forests and landfill decay often have no credible source, other than a chain of published papers that rely on each other for validity. This is not only wrong, but very damaging to the credibility of the printing and paper industries. The misinformation concerning landfill is one such example.
Mention the word ‘landfill’ and most people, quite understandably, shudder. Human beings have been responsible for burying countless millions of tonnes of domestic and industrial waste since before the industrial revolution began and we’re still at it. When one thinks of landfill, one can’t help imagining piles of waste, metres high, with diggers and tractors crawling all over, surrounded by the squawk of seagulls looking for an easy meal. In some parts of the developing world landfill may look still like this, and here, in the UK, on the surface it might resemble this too, but it is what is going on underneath that is important.
Put simply ‘old fashioned’ landfill consists of loose piles of waste, exposed to air and sometimes burned. Modern landfills are lined, leachate is drained, methane collected and waste covered every day with soil, so conditions rapidly become anaerobic. This is an important point: in modern landfills, with its air-tight conditions, paper and wood decays more slowly than in old dumps. In fact new evidence coming in from New South Wales in Australia suggests that under the right conditions in landfill, paper hardly decays AT ALL. It is important, therefore, that we do not confuse our experience from old dumps with modern landfill.
We all agree that burying our waste feels like poisoning the Earth. This is particularly true when the waste is chemical or inorganic – metals, old computers and keyboards, plastics, etc. But can paper and wood really be described as ‘waste’ in terms of its chemical and geological affinity with the earth?
People often talk about stopping carbon from ‘returning to the atmosphere’ as if this is its natural home and that it is inexorably drawn there. Well, it isn’t. In fact, the atmosphere is not the natural home for carbon at all – not by a long way.
There is approximately 83,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 83 thousand, million, million) metric tonnes of elementary carbon on planet Earth. Of this, just 0.001% is found in the atmosphere (in the form of CO2), with the remainder being shared amongst the oceans, soil, fossil fuel reserves, plants and the sediments and rocks. This latter carbon ‘stock’ – the sediments and rocks – represents 99.94% of all the carbon on Earth – over 100,000 times greater than the atmosphere stock and 1,800 times greater than all of the other stocks put together (including the atmosphere). Therefore, one could safely argue that the most natural place for carbon to reside on our planet is in the earth itself. Any other place it might find itself in is merely transitory. A point from where it will one day return to ground – its long term habitat.
This is backed up by the duration of carbon in these stocks. In the atmosphere, carbon typically resides for anywhere between 100 to 500 years. In sediments and rocks, it can be hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. Putting stable carbon based materials, such as paper and wood, back into the ground, then, to remain there possibly indefinitely, does not therefore seem at all at odds with the natural order of the carbon cycle.
For, as far as carbon is concerned, landfill is just another name for ‘home’.