Pollution from Landfills

Municipal waste consists of residential and some commercial and industrial waste. This does NOT include medical or hazardous waste. In Illinois, we have 62 landfills. Each Illinois resident produces more than one ton of trash annually.

Gas Emissions

Landfills emit landfill gas that consists mostly of methane and carbon dioxide, with small amounts of volatile organic compounds from the bacterial decomposition of organic materials. Methane and carbon dioxide are both greenhouse gases, and methane is toxic and explosive in large concentrations. Other anaerobic chemical reactions also release volatile organic products.


Landfill incinerators burn the trash at high temperatures and produce steam to power turbines. There are three incinerators in Illinois. These incinerators reduce the volume of incoming trash by 90% and the weight by 75%.

Incinerators produce dioxins, furans, heavy metals such as mercury and lead, sulfur and nitrogen compounds, and particulate matter. When the temperature and air mixture is not optimal, incinerators release products of incomplete combustions, like aldehydes, chlorinated hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, and dibenzofuranes.

Incineration effluents can have toxic effects on both humans and the surrounding environments.
  • Dioxins/furans, HCl and metals, produce a wide variety of human health effects including irritation of the lungs, skin and mucous membranes; problems with the central nervous system; kidney damage; and cancer.

  • Particulates may produce aggravated asthma, acute respiratory symptoms, chronic bronchitis, increased frequency of childhood illness. PM also impairs visibility by scattering and absorbing light.

  • Acid gases, such as NOx and SO2, may produce both temporary and long-term respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath, changes in airway responsiveness, and increased susceptibility to respiratory infection

Professor Patricia Shapley, University of Illinois, 2010