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Landfills among the biggest producers of methane emissions across Illinois, analysis shows

Garbage at a landfill
Ecology Action Center

New analysis and an interactive map based on federal EPA data shows Illinois is among the top states in the U.S. with landfills leaking large amounts of methane, according to climate-focused Industrious Labs.

The organization, which launched in October 2022, supports efforts to decarbonize the heavy industry sector by 2045 via working with business, climate and labor groups on climate-focused campaigns, research and analysis and more.

Last week, the group published an interactive map showing methane emissions from landfills across the country — and how they compare to other, large industrial sources of methane leaks.

Illinois ranks 9th in the ranking of states where the largest sources of methane leaks are from landfills, according to Industrious Labs' analysis of 2021 data from the EPA Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.

"Illinois has a lot of heavy industry so that's a really surprising finding," Katherine Blauvelt, a campaign director for Industrious Labs, said in an interview. "It really hits home that we've got to better limit methane emissions from landfills."

According to that analysis, the Winnebago Landfill in Rockford was the largest methane-emitter in the state, putting out more than 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2021. The Livingston Landfill in Pontiac was ranked the last of the top 10 methane-emitters, releasing over 166,000 metric tons of the gas. Those are just two of the 2,600 landfills monitored by the EPA; there are 56 total, in Illinois, but only 54 of them report greenhouse gas emissions to the EPA (not all are required to do so).

Methane has a greenhouse effect on the environment, meaning it traps heat and it's estimated be contributing "about 25% to warming temperatures from climate change" according to the USGS.

The federal EPA cites landfills as the "third-largest human-generated source of methane emissions." The emissions of methane come from decomposing organic matter, like food scraps, paper products, wood and yard waste.

Industrious Labs' contribution to the landfills-and-methane-emissions research landscape is its dashboard and its map allowing for comparison of the emissions reported at each landfill the EPA has data form.

Liz Kunkler, the Illinois Environmental Council's zero-waste policy manager, called it a "really important first step."

"You can't manage what you don't measure," Kunkler said in an interview. "I think it's important to have this data available to individuals, to grassroots groups, to local governments, but it's equally important to have solutions from the top down."

Top-down proposals

In 2021, the Biden administration announced a plan to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 2030, which includes methane mitigation efforts.

Scientists and climate advocates who spoke to NPR in 2021 described ongoing efforts to have the federal EPA change how it calculates emissions, suggesting its method actually underestimated the extent to which methane emissions have been leaking from landfills.

In Illinois, state Sen. Laura Fine, a Glenview Democrat, introduced a bill in February that would place a cap on methane emissions and require collection and control systems to be put in place.

"We know that sometimes you need those regulations and policies and legislation to sometimes make things happen on that broader scale," IEC's Kunkler said. Her position as the zero-waste policy manager at the environmental advocacy group is new, an indication of a direction the group intends to pursue.

"IEC — that's what we do: We'll advocate, educate, create coalitions, get people together to work on these ideas," she said. "But it's equally important that individuals are aware of the issues so that they can be active in their own communities. My perspective has always ben that there are lots of ways and options to divert your food scraps rather than send them to the landfill. Whatever it is that works for you where you are is what you should do."

'Any steps that we can take ... is going to help'

The federal EPA estimates that 24% of waste in landfills across the county is food waste, which is partially why individual responses to the landfill issue are being promoted by some advocacy groups. Although now focused on policy, Kunkler said her previous environmental advocacy work was in communities or with individuals.

"At base, I really feel like it's something we as individuals have a lot of control over in our daily lives," she said. "And then we can help move the needle by vocalizing the need to have some broader scale solution."

In Bloomington-Normal, the Ecology Action Center facilitates two dropoff sites for a community program run by industrial composting group Better Earth. EAC assistant director Larissa Armstrong said more than 250 people participate in the program that allows them to drop off any-and-all organic waste.

"Because it's industrial composting, you can compost any food waste, because it's a process with very high temperatures that can breakdown any of those materials that would otherwise be harmful if you tried to compost them in your backyard," she said.

Armstrong said the Normal-based nonprofit does offer education and materials for people interested in taking up backyard composting — or vermicomposting, in smaller spaces. She also cited an EAC analysis of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 indicated that, at the time, landfill waste "generated 1,650 metric tons of methane." (The EAC intends to update that study, Armstrong added, although a target date for a new report has not yet been set.)

"That's a small fraction of the larger pie of greenhouse gas emissions," she acknowledged. "But methane is generated in landfills when organic materials are decomposed, so any steps that we can take to keep organic materials out of the landfill is going to help reduce that number."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.