Creating RootPipes: A New Sustainable Landfill Design that Lowers Methane Emissions

By Kennesha Garg|August 3, 2023

This article is part of our Youth Voices series. At Ten Strands we believe that young people have valuable perspectives and a critical role in shaping our society and our world. We recognize their power to drive dialogue and create positive change and are committed to providing a platform which amplifies their contributions.

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In seventh grade science, I was learning about greenhouse gas emissions and their connection to climate change. In one lesson, a particular source of methane (a greenhouse gas 80x more potent than carbon dioxide) specifically caught my eye: landfills. Landfills contribute around fifteen percent of the total methane emissions in the US. Upon further research, I discovered how neighborhoods next to landfills also have to endure their smell, pests, and sometimes even fires because of their extreme heat. Growing up in India, where I had similar experiences due to mounds of dumps in my area, I knew I had to do something about this.

With the knowledge of a landfill’s drastic environmental impact, I set out to reduce said impact. I wanted to build a landfill system that reduced emissions to almost net zero.

Current landfill system, drawn by Kennesha

Most landfills have waste that is underground, where there is no oxygen present. When this waste decomposes, it mostly forms methane and carbon dioxide. To extract these gasses, there are typically wells, or pipes, installed inside landfills that span vertically and horizontally. These wells are connected to motors that suction out gasses from inside the landfill; of course, this system is clearly inefficient, considering the huge methane emissions. 

The modeled RootPipes landfill design by Kennesha

To scope my solution design, I used biomimicry, or emulating models from nature to solve real-world problems. I took inspiration from mangroves to enhance the current collection systems. I came up with RootPipes: a piping system that mimics the shape of mangroves to reach more remote areas of the landfill. Because of their shape, RootPipes have the ability to reach places in landfills where pockets of greenhouse gasses tend to remain inaccessible. The RootPipes would cover a greater surface area of the landfill, increasing the amount of gas collected.

3D-printed version of RootPipes that Kennesha tested in her backyard

After developing a promising iteration of my design, I set out to test my RootPipes system in my backyard with a $300 budget. I used CAD to prototype my design and got it 3D-printed.

Kennesha’s testing procedure, with RootPipes above and the current landfill system below

This prototype allowed me to simulate two landfill environments: the RootPipes one and another (which had a singular vertical pipe) currently used in a landfill. Asking my neighbors to collect their food waste for two weeks, I gathered 20 kg of compostable waste to put in each of the landfill boxes. After sealing the boxes, the waste began to decompose and form methane and CO2. I collected these gasses to compare which landfill system was more efficient and thorough. 

After collecting data for around six months, I concluded that RootPipes had collected seventy-eight percent more gasses than the approach used in landfills currently. These results indicate that RootPipes have the potential to transform landfills into sustainable architecture. 

Of course, the ultimate goal of this project is to integrate RootPipes in all landfills. But before I could persuade landfill corporations to let me rent parts of their landfills for experimentation, I knew I had to present more robust data. Therefore, I determined that, as a next step, I would conduct several rounds of experimentations at a composting windrow in a farm.

Kennesha visiting Ardenwood Farms for implementation of RootPipes

I reached out to Ardenwood Farms next to my house and pitched my project to them for months before they accepted. Using a compost windrow, my plan is to use more sophisticated trials and equipment to compare RootPipes and current landfill systems. But, this time, it will take more than $300 to make my vision possible. 

To be able to build my landfill at this farm and gather more evidence of the efficiency of RootPipes, I have started a GoFundMe page. With your help, I’ll be able to cover the costs of my project, including farm permits, prototype building, extraction equipment, data collection devices, gas storage technology, weather resistant covers, etc. 

Right now, I have been presenting my research at science fairs, sustainability conferences, and universities. With additional data hopefully proving that RootPipes are more effective at collecting gasses, I aim to partner with waste management organizations to implement this design into real landfills. I am working towards not only getting RootPipes installed in landfills in the US but also in countries all over the world. The amount of greenhouse gas emissions we can minimize through this global implementation would be immense. With this RootPipes solution, we can get closer to creating a world that is safe for us and for future generations.

Kennesha Garg
This article was written by Kennesha Garg

Kennesha Garg, a senior at American High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, is passionate about researching anthropogenic impact and championing sustainable innovations and policies. Her work on landfills has been recognized by Waste Today, MSW Management, E&E News, and more, and she has won international awards from Junior Science & Humanities Symposium and Regeneron ISEF. She also works with NOAA, NAAEE, the Sierra Club, and Mind & Planet to promote climate literacy and minimize youth eco-anxiety. She conducts biomimetic research at Arizona State, Villanova, and UC Santa Cruz.