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Alyssa Fogel, Jenna Johnston, Isaac Roussos, Matthys Visser - 1

Landfill Decomposition Investigation


I.
II.

Question: In what type of soil/landfill will materials decompose most rapidly?


Background: Two types of landfills are used throughout the country: open-air and
sanitary. Open-air landfills are also known as dumps. Trash is either dumped in a hole
and covered with a thin layer of soil or simply left in an above-ground pile where it is
open to the elements as well as scavenging by wildlife. Sanitary landfills separate the
trash from the soil by using mediums such as plastic or clay liners. A new layer of soil is
added to a sanitary landfill at the end of each day. The problem with this is the fact that
oxygen and water cannot penetrate the liners to degrade all of the trash. Therefore, the
materials do not decompose properly and nutrient cycling is effectively decreased.
Instead, Decomposers, specifically anaerobic decomposers, release an explosive and
flammable gas when they absorb and break down the materials within the layers. Pipes
must be installed in the landfill to remove the gas produced.

III.

Hypothesis: If we create three landfill models in containers, then the container that
mimics an open-air landfill using soil will have the highest rate of material degradation
because the trash is constantly being exposed to oxygen and water, the two most
important factors in decomposition, as well as to decomposers such as aerobic bacteria
that are already in the soil.

IV.

Materials:
A. White cornstarch peanuts (4)
B. Landfill containers (4)
C. Popsicle sticks (4)
D. Marking pen
E. Metal strips (4)
F. Organic soil mixture
G. Paper strips (4)
H. Plastic bag
I. Crackers (4)
J. Sand
K. Cotton string (4)
L. Synthetic neon string (4)
M. Wood pieces (4)

Alyssa Fogel, Jenna Johnston, Isaac Roussos, Matthys Visser - 2

V.

VI.

VII.
VIII.

Procedure for Experiment 1:


A. Fill one of the landfill containers halfway with potting soil and another halfway
with sand.
B. Bury one metal strip, one paper strip, one cracker, one wood piece, one piece of
each string type (2 inches for each type), and one packing peanut in both the
potting soil and the sand. Leave the tops off the containers.
C. Use a popsicle stick to mark which landfill is which. (Soil: A; Sand: C)
D. Add more potting soil or sand if necessary to fill the container.
E. Each week, remove the materials from each landfill and photograph them on a
paper towel. Label each paper towel according to the letter on the popsicle stick.
Re-bury each of the materials in the landfills until the next measurements.
F. Place the container back under the lamp until the next measurements.
Procedure for Experiment 2:
A. Fill both landfill containers halfway with potting soil.
B. Bury one metal strip, one paper strip, one cracker, one wood piece, one piece of
each string type (2 inches for each type), and one packing peanut in the potting
soil of the open-air landfill. Leave the top off the container.
C. In the other, place the materials in a plastic bag, seal the plastic bag, and then bury
the bag. Leave the top off the container.
D. Use a popsicle stick to mark which landfill is which. (Open-air: B; sanitary: D)
E. Add more potting soil if necessary to fill the container.
F. Place the container back under the lamp until the next measurements.
G. Each week, remove the materials from each landfill and photograph them on a
paper towel. Label each paper towel according to the letter on the popsicle stick.
Re-bury each of the materials in the landfills until the next measurements.
Data Table attached in separate document (https://goo.gl/Y209Ku)
Observations
Container A
(open-air soil,
experiment 1)

Initial:
12/2/16

Container B
(open-air soil,
experiment 2)

Container C
(open-air sand,
experiment 1)

Container D
(sanitary soil,
experiment 2)

We added a metal piece, cardboard, a cracker, a packing peanut, a


synthetic string, a cotton string, and a cornstarch peanut to each container.
We buried all materials in the soil. For Container D, the materials were
placed in a bag and into the soil. There was quite a bit of moisture in the
soil, but not in the sand. We did not add any water.

Alyssa Fogel, Jenna Johnston, Isaac Roussos, Matthys Visser - 3


12/8/16

Cracker already
significantly
decomposed,
there is a large
hole in the
middle with
mold around it.
Peanut was also
much smaller.

Similar changes
to Container A:
decomposed
cracker (in
pieces), smaller
peanut. Soil
collected around
string and
cracker (hard to
remove because
of moisture).

No significant
change in any
materials.
Covered in sand
but no apparent
physical
changes.

No apparent
physical
changes. Bag is
covered in soil
but no soil is in
the bag. Bag is
slightly damp.

12/15/16

Cracker more
decomposed;
slightly moldy.
Peanut almost
gone. Materials
slightly drier.

Similar to
Container A.
Cracker
decomposed and
in pieces. Peanut
is shriveled.

No apparent
physical change.

No apparent
physical change.

1/5/17

Materials
slightly drier.
Not much more
decomposition.
Mold on cracker
is apparent.

Similar to
Container A.
Soil is drying
out.

Sand is slightly
clumped
because of
moisture in
some spots.
Cardboard is
wet. No visible
decomposition.

No apparent
physical change.

1/13/17

Soil is even
drier. No
apparent
physical change.

Similar to
Container A.
Drier soil.

No apparent
physical change.

No apparent
physical change.

1/20/17

No apparent
physical change.

No apparent
physical change.

No apparent
physical change.

No apparent
physical change.

Patterns in data:
Container C (sand) and Container D (sanitary soil) did not exhibit signs of decomposition.
Container C (sand) did absorb some water but did not contribute to decomposition. Containers A
and B (open-air soil) did decompose some of the trash materials, most notably the cornstarch
packing peanut and the cracker. Inorganic materials, such as the pink string and the piece of
metal, exhibited the least amount of decomposition. In Containers A and B, decomposition
halted about a month after the experiment began, and materials exhibited little change for the rest
of the investigation.

Alyssa Fogel, Jenna Johnston, Isaac Roussos, Matthys Visser - 4


IX.

Analysis
The objects left to decompose in the dirt were the most decomposed at the end of the
experiment, and decomposed the most quickly throughout the experiment. Most objects used in
this experiment did not show significant decomposition. This is likely to be due to the size of the
objects. The cracker and the starch packing peanut decomposed when left in soil because
starches are easily broken down during respiration. The objects left in the sand decomposed less,
and the objects left in the bags barely decomposed at all. These results make sense because
bacteria contribute greatly to the decomposition process. Aerobic bacteria need air and water to
survive, and the soil containers had more air and water than the sand or sanitary containers.
These results were anticipated by our hypothesis: waste materials left in the soil decomposed the
most, while materials left in the sand or sealed in a bag exhibited less decomposition.
One surprising result of our experiment was that decomposition of the starch peanut and
the cracker halted in the open-air soil landfills after about a month. This result can be explained
after examining our procedure more closely. We did not add any water to the landfill models,
and the containers sat under lamps in between data collection days. Therefore, at the beginning
of the experiment there was some moisture in the soil landfill models, which allowed for the
growth of bacteria and other decomposers. As the containers sat under the lamps for weeks, the
soil dried out, killing any living organisms in the soil and removing all moisture. After about a
month, once the soil was dry and contained no live organisms, no further decomposition
occurred.
Another surprising result of our experiment was the appearance of drops of moisture in
the sand container after about one month of the experiment. It is possible that one of the waste
materials had water in them that was drawn out by the sand over time. However, another likely
explanation is that since containers from the whole class were stored in the same location, water
from another experiment was dropped into the sand landfill model. Luckily, it was a negligible
amount of moisture, and did not impact our experiments results in a significant way.
This investigation has many possible sources of error. Our materials were not entirely
consistent or controlled through each model. As observed in the external Data Table, due to
some mix-ups during our complicated setup process, some landfill models contained variations
in the materials included. Container B ended up with three smaller pieces of wood instead of a
single larger piece, and some models had more than one type of cracker. Since we lost soil each
time we had to remove the materials and replace them, some containers had less sand or soil than
others as the experiment went on. These material inconsistencies might have affected
decomposition. These errors could be easily corrected in a future with a clearer setup procedure
from the start.

Alyssa Fogel, Jenna Johnston, Isaac Roussos, Matthys Visser - 5

X.

Conclusion
Our hypothesis was that the landfills we made that most closely mimicked an open-air,
soil landfill would have the most material deterioration compared to the other setups. This
hypothesis was probable because the open-air landfill would have the most exposure to oxygen,
water and other decomposers that live in the soil, compared with landfills that sealed waste
materials in a bag or surrounded them with dry sand. This hypothesis was supported because
containers A and B, the soil open-air models, having the most material degradation. They were
followed by landfill C, the open-air sand container, and last was D, the sanitary landfill. The sand
was not as effective as the soil because sand does not hold moisture like soil does, so it protected
the trash from decomposition by water and organisms that survive when water is present. The
sanitary landfill was the worst decomposer because all the trash was sealed away from anything
that could break it down.
Our conclusion with regard to the investigation is that in relation to our experiment, soil
is an effective decomposer, especially when it contains moisture. Waste materials in sanitary
landfills are unlikely to mix with the soil surrounding the landfill unless the layers between them
are faulty. Dry sand is less effective at facilitating decomposition than potting soil that contains
moisture. Our data supports this conclusion because the most decomposition occurred in open-air
soil landfill models when the soil contained some moisture.
To improve the experiment, we could make adjustments to the procedure, scaling up the
experiment or building a more complex representation of a sanitary landfill. The models in our
experiment were not particularly representative of actual open-air or sanitary landfills due to
size, time, and material limitations. Additional testing and data outside of qualitative data would
also be useful. We could alter the main variable in the experiment by measuring rates of
decomposition as they relate to moisture content of soil. In further investigations, we could
record the mass of each material, moisture content of the soil, or chemical composition of the
soil. Examining variations in these measurements in addition to qualitative observations would
add to the value of our experiment.
XI.
References
Flinn Scientific, Inc. (Comp.). (2014). Landfill Decomposition: Student Laboratory Kit
[Laboratory Manual]. Batavia, IL.