What is a Bioreactor Landfill?


A bioreactor landfill operates to rapidly transform and degrade organic waste. The increase in waste degradation and stabilization is accomplished through the addition of liquid and air to enhance microbial processes. This bioreactor concept differs from the traditional “dry tomb” municipal landfill approach.

A bioreactor landfill is not just a single design and will correspond to the operational process invoked. There are three different general types of bioreactor landfill configurations:

  • Aerobic - In an aerobic bioreactor landfill, leachate is removed from the bottom layer, piped to liquids storage tanks, and re-circulated into the landfill in a controlled manner. Air is injected into the waste mass, using vertical or horizontal wells, to promote aerobic activity and accelerate waste stabilization.
  • Anaerobic - In an anaerobic bioreactor landfill, moisture is added to the waste mass in the form of re-circulated leachate and other sources to obtain optimal moisture levels. Biodegradation occurs in the absence of oxygen (anaerobically) and prodJune 30, 2008rimarily methane, can be captured to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and for energy projects.
  • Hybrid (Aerobic-Anaerobic) - The hybrid bioreactor landfill accelerates waste degradation by employing a sequential aerobic-anaerobic treatment to rapidly degrade organics in the upper sections of the landfill and collect gas from lower sections. Operation as a hybrid results in the earlier onset of methanogenesis compared to aerobic landfill

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) has defined a bioreactor landfill as "any permitted Subtitle D landfill or landfill cell where liquid or air is injected in a controlled fashion into the waste mass in order to accelerate or enhance biostabilization of the waste." The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently collecting information on the advantages and disadvantages of bioreactor landfills through case studies of existing landfills and additional data so that EPA can identify specific bioreactor standards or recommend operating parameters. The information on this web page is organized to give you information about:

  • Features Unique to Bioreactor Landfills
  • Potential Advantages of Bioreactor Landfills
  • Special Considerations of Bioreactor
  • Landfills
  • Current EPA Bioreactor Research

Key Topics


Features Unique to Bioreactor Landfills

The bioreactor accelerates the decomposition and stabilization of waste. At a minimum, leachate is injected into the bioreactor to stimulate the natural biodegradation process. Bioreactors often need other liquids such as stormwater, wastewater, and wastewater treatment plant sludges to supplement leachate to enhance the microbiological process by purposeful control of the moisture content and differs from a landfill that simple recirculates leachate for liquids management. Landfills that simply recirculate leachate may not necessarily operate as optimized bioreactors.

Moisture content is the single most important factor that promotes the accelerated decomposition. The bioreactor technology relies on maintaining optimal moisture content near field capacity (approximately 35 to 65%) and adds liquids when it is necessary to maintain that percentage. The moisture content, combined with the biological action of naturally occurring microbes decomposes the waste. The microbes can be either aerobic or anaerobic. A side effect of the bioreactor is that it produces landfill gas (LFG) such as methane in an anaerobic unit at an earlier stage in the landfill’s life and at an overall much higher rate of generation than traditional landfills.



Potential Advantages of Bioreactor Landfills

Decomposition and biological stabilization of the waste in a bioreactor landfill can occur in a much shorter time frame than occurs in a traditional “dry tomb” landfill providing a potential decrease in long-term environmental risks and landfill operating and post-closure costs. Potential advantages of bioreactors include:

  • Decomposition and biological stabilization in years vs. decades in “dry tombs”
  • Lower waste toxicity and mobility due to both aerobic and anaerobic conditions
  • Reduced leachate disposal costs
  • A 15 to 30 percent gain in landfill space due to an increase in density of waste mass
  • Significant increased LFG generation that, when captured, can be used for energy use onsite or sold
  • Reduced post-closure care

Research has shown that municipal solid waste can be rapidly degraded and made less hazardous (due to degradation of organics and the sequestration of inorganics) by enhancing and controlling the moisture within the landfill under aerobic and/or anaerobic conditions. Leachate quality in a bioreactor rapidly improves which leads to reduced leachate disposal costs. Landfill volume may also decrease with the recovered airspace offering landfill operators the extend the operating life of the landfill.


LFG emitted by a bioreactor landfill consists primarily of methane and carbon dioxide plus lesser amounts of volatile organic chemicals and/or hazardous air pollutants. Research indicates that the operation of a bioreactor may generate LFG earlier in the process and at a higher rate than the traditional landfill. The bioreactor LFG is also generated over a shorter period of time because the LFG emissions decline as the accelerated decomposition process depletes the source waste faster than in a traditional landfill. The net result appears to be that the bioreactor produces more LFG overall than the traditional landfill does.


Some studies indicate that the bioreactor increases the feasibility for cost effective LFG recovery, which in turn would reduce fugitive emissions. This presents an opportunity for beneficial reuse of bioreactor LFG in energy recovery projects. Currently, the use of LFG (in traditional and bioreactor landfills) for energy applications is only about 10 percent of its potential use. The US Department of Energy estimates that if the controlled bioreactor technology were applied to 50 percent of the waste currently being landfilled, it could provide over 270 billion cubic feet of methane a year, which is equivalent to one percent of US electrical needs.

*definitions taken from the EPA's website
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