Solid Waste & Recycling

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Landfill legacy

On March 6 , 2013, the public works magazine American City & County published an article, “Creating a Great Landfill Legacy,” by Brian Tippetts, treasurer for the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and the Director...


On March 6 , 2013, the public works magazine American City & County published an article, “Creating a Great Landfill Legacy,” by Brian Tippetts, treasurer for the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and the Director for the Solid Waste Division of Applied Ecological Services, Inc. The article argues that, done well, landfills can be “a conservation jewel and a source of great value for local residents.”

The terms “landfill” and “great legacy” aren’t usually thought of together, so Tippetts’ insights are refreshing. As everyone knows in this business, the challenge of siting new landfills (or expanding existing ones) is not lack of space, but rather local public opposition and the cost of overcoming it, when this is even possible.

Tippetts notes landfills are a fact of life that control hundreds or even thousands of acres of land. The public may abstractly support “zero waste”, but (in general) continue to behave as traditional consumers, buying more stuff (and packaging) and generating more waste, year over year.

Until we transform our consumption patterns, we’re stuck with the need for some amount of disposal capacity. As with waste-to-energy facilities, landfills should at least be well designed and properly maintained.

Modern landfills are not, of course, the “dump sites” of the past, which simply buried waste in unlined pits. In the early 20th century even this rudimentary technology represented a positive step in the early “sanitation” movement, reducing vectors and disease associated with solid waste in much the same way that the then-new municipal waterworks infrastructure was preventing cholera outbreaks and other problems.

However, “leachate” from the pits contaminated aquifers over time and garnered a poor reputation for landfills that lingers to this day, despite modern landfills being fairly high-tech operations with systems to pump and treat leachate, siphon off methane gas (and burn it for energy), and control the machines on the “working face” of the landfill with digital GPS systems.

Tippetts argues that a landfill property, footprint and buffer, can be repurposed for a variety of uses, best achieved via a credible plan that articulates a vision, proposes an implementation schedule (part of which should be put into effect immediately), and a reliable funding source. He says the public doesn’t see added value in end-use plans with vague descriptions of open green space. Better, he suggests, to paint a picture of an attractive end use, and demonstrate how the funds will be collected to make it real.

Of course, one of the main reasons people oppose landfill projects is from concern that property values will be negatively affected. Tippetts suggests tax tools can be used to offset these concerns, and the attractive end-use can minimize local housing marketplace disruption.

Tippetts suggests that a landfill property end-use plan should take a “multi-use resource approach.” This means protecting the landfill’s environmental infrastructure (e.g., leachate treatment and gas collection) while providing for recreational opportunities such as natural areas for hiking, birding, biking, etc. (This brings to mind a TV ad that Waste Management Inc. once sponsored wherein people enjoyed a round of golf on lush lands that had once been a landfill.)

The public is more likely to accept a landfill if it’s positioned by proponents as the necessary final stage of a waste minimization process. The property could, for example, allow space for planned recycling operations, organics processing and waste transfer. People want to know it’s part of a scheme to deal with the waste locally, and they want to know that anything that can be recycled or composted is removed first. (In this regard, the so-called “stabilized” landfill concept is popular.)

Proponents act in the interest of the community, Tippetts says, when they permanently establish natural areas, create naturalized storm-water controls, provide low-impact recreational opportunities, and (where possible) connect to neighboring ecological and recreational areas.

“Such ecological restorations,” he states, “may take place only in landfill buffers or possibly throughout the entire site.”

Over the years, our publication has surveyed opinions from waste management professionals on a range of issues; one of the most consistent views readers express is that landfills should be sited and constructed like any other municipal infrastructure. It is odd how much more readily people accept a water treatment plant, say, over any facility that handles waste.

Though we may wish it were otherwise, public skepticism over landfills is likely to continue, along with the need for them as we continue to consume, consume, consume. So let’s follow Tippetts’ suggestion and create inspiring end-use plans for landfills, and provide the credible funding mechanisms to make them a reality.

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at gcrittenden@solidwastemag.com


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