Study finds landfill point source emissions have an outsized impact and opportunity to tackle U.S. waste methane

Published on: Mar 28, 2024

Largest measurement-based landfill methane assessment to date identifies major emission sources missing from traditional accounting that can be prioritized for mitigation

March 28, 2024—Pasadena, CA— A new study, published online today in the journal Science, led by Carbon Mapper scientists alongside researchers from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Arizona State University, University of Arizona, Scientific Aviation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, provides the largest comprehensive assessment of hundreds of U.S. landfills using direct observations through airborne surveys. The study reveals the outsized impact of landfill point source emissions, which are responsible for a disproportionately large share of pollution from this important sector. It also sheds light on potential gaps in traditional model-based emission accounting methods that may benefit from sustained direct measurement using emerging surface-, air-, and space-based monitoring technologies. 

Large plumes of methane detected at a landfill during U.S. airborne surveys. Additional observations are available in the Carbon Mapper data portal

“Addressing these high methane sources and mitigating persistent landfill emissions offers a strong potential for climate benefit,” said Dr. Dan Cusworth, Carbon Mapper Program Scientist and lead author on the paper. “The ability to precisely identify leaks is an efficient way to make quick progress on methane reduction at landfills, which could be critical for slowing global warming.”

Landfills are considered the third largest source of human-caused methane emissions in the U.S., responsible for 14.3% of methane in 2021 and emitting the equivalent to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from nearly 23.1 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles driven for one year, according to the EPA. Despite the climate impact of landfills, societal understanding of these emissions is largely limited to model-based estimates, and the sector remains under-addressed compared to other big methane sources like oil and gas. Traditional surface-based surveys with handheld methane sensors provide an incomplete picture of emissions. This is due to factors like limited access to many sections of active landfills as well as logistical and personnel safety reasons.

To help fill these gaps, Carbon Mapper and research partners used advanced aircraft to conduct the largest direct measurement-based survey of active municipal solid waste landfills to date from 2018 through 2022. This included aerial surveys, led by Carbon Mapper and Scientific Aviation, of over 200 active U.S. landfills that participate in the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (20% of approximately 1,200 reported open landfills). Surveys led by Carbon Mapper utilized partner aircraft—including NASA JPL’s AVIRIS-NG and Arizona State University’s Global Airborne Observatory with the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science.

Key findings
Evaluating this large data set yielded insights that site owners and operators, policymakers, regulators, and civil society can use to better assess and act on landfill emissions. 

(1) Landfill point source emissions have an outsized methane impact. Fifty-two percent (52%) of surveyed landfills had observable point source emissions. This far exceeds the 0.2% to 1% detection rate observed for super-emitters from surveyed oil and gas infrastructure in California and the Permian Basin. 

(2) Landfill point source emissions are generally more persistent compared to their counterparts in oil and gas production. For those landfills with observed emissions, 60% had emissions that persisted over months or years. These persistent emissions totaled 87% of all quantified emissions in the study. Comparatively, the majority of methane super-emitters in the oil and gas sector are related to irregular, short-duration events.

(3) There are significant gaps in landfill leak detection and quantification protocols. Current walking surveys with hand-held sensors are ineffective in completely sampling the landfill surface and may miss high point source activity that can dominate the facility’s emissions while remaining undetected for extended periods. Advanced monitoring strategies, such as remote sensing from satellites, aircraft and drones, can provide a more accurate picture of landfill methane emissions. When combined with improved ground-based measurements, remote sensing can provide consistent, comprehensive measurements to better inform models, guide mitigation efforts and verify emission reductions.

(4) A robust dataset of quantified emissions at U.S. landfills finds little agreement with national reporting frameworks. A misalignment between observed and reported emissions indicates that current methods used to report facility emissions, such as the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP), are missing or misrepresenting large sources of methane. On average, aerial emission rates were 1.4 times higher than GHGRP. This presents a significant difference between observed and reported emissions, supported by the largest airborne or ground-based survey of U.S. landfills to date.

Looking forward, this study reveals the need for a comprehensive monitoring strategy to measure, quantify and act on methane emissions at landfills more effectively. Resources like the Carbon Mapper Coalition satellite program can offer efficient solutions for measurement challenges. The coalition’s first Tanager satellite, which is launching in 2024 as part of a public-private partnership between Carbon Mapper, Planet Labs PBC, NASA JPL and others, is uniquely designed and optimized to detect methane at landfills. Carbon Mapper is also conducting a multi-year initiative to assess thousands of high-emitting solid waste sites globally, using remote sensing technologies to establish a methane emissions baseline for managed landfills and unmanaged dumps. This includes U.S. landfill aerial campaigns planned for 2024. 

Carbon Mapper’s methane data is publicly available on its portal to maximize the availability of emissions data for a wide range of operators across many jurisdictions, including major waste management companies and local city and county governments. This helps empower them to mitigate emissions and make informed decisions that maximize methane capture. The data is also made available for policymakers, regulators, community groups and others to support science-based decision making.

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About Carbon Mapper

Carbon Mapper is a nonprofit based in Pasadena, CA with the mission to drive greenhouse gas emissions reductions by making methane and carbon dioxide data accessible and actionable. They focus on filling gaps in the emerging ecosystem of methane and CO2 monitoring systems by delivering data at facility scale that is precise, timely, and accessible to empower decision making and direct mitigation action. The organization leads a public-private coalition that is developing and deploying a constellation of satellites capable of detecting, quantifying, and verifying methane emissions worldwide. Data from these satellites will offer the next major step in scaling up the organization’s robust data portal featuring thousands of direct observations of global methane and CO2 super-emitters. Learn more at carbonmapper.org, view data at data.carbonmapper.org, and follow us on Twitter @carbonmapper.

MEDIA CONTACT: Annabelle Blair, Carbon Mapper

annabelle@carbonmapper.org

(626) 630-6065

Special Note to Reporters: More information, including a copy of the paper, can be found online at the Science press package at https://www.eurekalert.org/press/scipak/.

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Spectroscopy is broadly defined as the study of how electromagnetic energy interacts with matter. There are many different methods that use the principles of spectroscopy to detect, identify, and quantify data about matter including gasses, liquids, and solids.

Spectrometers are instruments that measure this interaction between these different materials and energy.