Landfill management vs. Methane leaks: How to avoid million-dollar fines

Written by
Alexey Smirnov,
Regional Director @ SPH Engineering
Reading time:
Integrated Systems
March 7, 2024

In the ongoing battle against the climate crisis, managing emissions from landfills stands out as a critical yet challenging struggle. As repositories of vast quantities of organic waste, landfills are significant sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that adds to global warming. The traditional methods of monitoring and controlling landfill methane emissions need to be revised to meet the urgent need for emissions reduction. This scenario calls for innovative solutions that can revolutionize landfill management practices.

The Impact of Landfill Emissions

Landfill emissions are a complex mix of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases, with methane from landfills accounting for a substantial portion of global greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions contribute to the climate crisis and pose risks to human health and the environment. The waste sector, responsible for managing municipal landfills, faces the task of implementing measures to achieve dramatic reductions in emissions. National averages and annual reports underscore the urgency of addressing the tons of methane released into the atmosphere annually.


The Cost of Pollution: Financial Impacts of Methane Regulations on U.S. Landfills

Due to the scale and effects of intensified methane emissions from landfills, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency introduced stricter regulations. The Biden-Harris Administration has emphasized the urgency of addressing methane pollution by implementing comprehensive standards to combat climate change and protect public health. This places a crucial responsibility on landfills to comply with new regulations and highlights the need for advanced methane detection methods.

The EPA's proactive stance is evidenced by its intensified efforts to impose fines on landfills for methane leaks. For instance, the landfill at Niagara Falls has recently been fined $671,000 for exceeding the 50 megagrams methane emissions limits. As regulatory pressures mount, landfills grapple with the financial repercussions of these fines.

Fines for failing to prevent methane leaks could exceed $600,000.

Conventional Methods for Methane Detection at Landfills

Traditional methane leak detection methods at landfills, involving stationary systems and ground crews with handheld sensors, face significant challenges. Stationary systems require a substantial initial investment, starting at around $150,000, and may only be feasible for some sites. They also offer only approximate leak locations, complicating maintenance efforts. While offering on-the-spot detection, ground crews incur high costs and time demands and face operational hazards, including unsafe terrain and wildlife. These limitations underscore the need for a more flexible and efficient approach to managing landfill emissions.

The initial cost of stationary systems for detecting methane leaks, beginning at $150,000, makes them a significant financial commitment and only applies to some locations.

The Rise of Drone Technology for Methane Detection

Emerging as a game-changing solution to this environmental challenge, drones equipped with advanced sensing technologies are revolutionizing landfill management. Unmanned aerial vehicles can efficiently survey large areas of landfill sites, detecting leaks from landfills with precision and speed. By identifying the exact locations and volumes of methane emissions, drones enable landfill operators to take targeted actions, significantly enhancing the effectiveness of emissions reduction strategies.

One of the most innovative and efficient solutions for detecting methane leaks is the drone equipped with a TDLAS Laser Falcon sensor.

DJI M300 equipped with methane (CH4) sensing technology TDLAS Laser Falcon revolutionizing landfill management
Drone equipped with a TDLAS Laser Falcon sensor

Using drones overcomes the need for ground-based installations, making them adaptable to any landfill without constraints. Their swift deployment is a feature, with monitoring flights quickly executed in automated mode daily or even more frequently. The flight mission needs to be fully planned once in flight planning software, and once planned, the same mission can be rapidly launched every day in less than 5 minutes, providing agility in promptly responding to methane leaks.

Drone-based solution for detecting methane leaks adapts easily to any landfill, offering rapid deployment and the ability to conduct frequent automated monitoring flights. Once a flight mission is set up in the planning software, it can be launched within 5 minutes daily, ensuring swift responses to methane leaks.

Success Stories in the Waste Sector

Several success stories underscore the transformative impact of drones in the waste sector. For instance, innovative energy projects have utilized drone technology to monitor landfill gas emissions, substantially reducing emissions. These projects highlight drones' potential to detect leaks and facilitate efficient landfill cover management, ensuring daily cover compliance and ultimately contributing to the sustainability of landfill operations.

Benefits Beyond Methane Detection

The benefits of deploying drones in landfill management extend beyond detecting methane leaks. Drones also play a crucial role in optimizing the use of landfill cover and improving the overall efficiency of landfill operations. By providing detailed aerial data, drones assist landfill operators in planning and implementing effective landfill cover solutions, reducing the potential for emissions.

The Role of Data and Reporting

The data collected by drones are invaluable for reporting and analysis, offering insights that drive decision-making and policy formulation. Initiatives like Carbon Mapper leverage drone-collected data to generate comprehensive annual reports detailing emissions and highlighting progress towards achieving climate targets. This accurate and timely reporting is essential for the landfill waste sector to evaluate the effectiveness of emissions reduction efforts and plan future initiatives.

Future Directions: Towards Sustainable Landfill Management

The role of drones in landfill management is set to expand, with ongoing advancements in technology promising even greater efficiencies and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. As the waste sector continues to evolve, integrating drone technology in landfill management practices represens a crucial step towards sustainable operations and achieving ambitious climate targets.


The deployment of drones in landfill management marks a significant leap forward in the fight against the climate crisis. By enabling precise detection of methane leaks and facilitating effective emissions reduction strategies, drones offer a promising solution to one of our most pressing environmental challenges. Drone technology's continued innovation and adoption will transform the waste sector and safeguard the planet for future generations.