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Are Landfills The Resource Banks We’ve Been Looking For?

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Posted April 19, 2018

Changing the way we look at landfills could help us solve some of the most pressing problems of our time. The key is viewing landfills as a resource rather than a place for waste, according to a new dissertation by Yahya Jani, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biology and Environmental Science at Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden.

Landfill. Image credit: Bas Emmen via Unsplash, CC0 Public Domain

Landfills as a Resource Bank

In his dissertation, Jani suggests that more than half of the materials dumped into landfills could be used as an energy source or recycled into raw materials.

Recovering these materials could have financial benefits as well as environmental ones. It could help move us toward a more circular economy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution caused by contaminated leachates from landfills.

Extracting Metals From Glass Waste

Specifically, Jani’s research discusses the extraction of metals from art and crystal glass waste produced by the famous glassworks of Sweden’s historical Småland province, known as the kingdom of crystal.

As part of his research, Jani developed a method for extracting up to 99 percent of the metals from glass waste and soil fine fractions. The method involves mixing the waste with chemicals that decrease its melting point, enabling the extraction to occur.

Using this process, Jani says, isn’t restricted to art and crystal glass. It can also extract metals from all types of glass, including those in old computers and televisions.

Challenges and Solutions

One challenge to using this method is the characterization of landfill contents to identify potential valuables and hazards. Using boreholes and excavations, followed by hand sorting, have proven effective but are also expensive and time-consuming.

Other research has proposed methods for estimating the contents of a landfill to make recovery more economical.

If a landfill has a high concentration of useful metals, as those in Småland do, using a process like Jani’s could prove lucrative.

Recovering and recycling more raw materials from landfills is one part of the solution to high raw material demand and environmental concerns associated with landfills. We also need to use the raw materials we have more responsibly.

Biotechnology research from Goethe University Frankfurt, for instance, developed a more efficient process for transforming the sugar xylose into ethanol that also applies to making other biofuels, synthetic materials and pharmaceuticals.

Such procedures are often slow and create unwanted byproducts. The more efficient process enables cells to process the raw material like a conveyor belt, leaving no time for other enzymes to create byproducts. This results in the more efficient use of the raw materials.

Other research focuses on finding more sustainable, economical sources of raw materials. A project from the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME in Munich is exploring extracting rubber from dandelions, which can grow in more sustainable and cost-effective places than traditional rubber trees. The study takes what we typically see as a weed and turns it into a valuable resource.

Growing populations and rapidly emerging economies increase the demand for raw materials, making them harder to find.

At the same time, the way we deal with waste causes environmental problems and prevents us from taking full advantage of the value of materials.

Research that enables us to extract value from waste in the form of raw materials helps to solve both of these issues.

Although no one discovery will completely solve these challenges, the sum of many innovations and industry’s willingness to employ them can make a substantial difference.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes.

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