Today, landfill design is not only how we are going to build it, but also why.
By John Swenson

In the past, best practices of landfill design primarily centered around technical engineered design aspects that met the minimum regulatory requirements. However, that simplistic approach is coming up short with respect to stakeholders’ expectations. Technical aspects of landfill design remain an important component of waste management practices, but it is only a piece of the puzzle. The process of landfill design has evolved as merely a technical exercise to all possibilities of waste management, developing long-term capacity plans and protections for the communities they serve.

Because of environmental, political and citizen’s group pressures, traditional landfill design takes on a much bigger role. Today’s waste management strategies not only need to solve today’s problems, but also lay the groundwork for the future as well. Increased regulations, shrinking capacities, public pressures and political ambitions have certainly changed the game.

Do We Have a “Trash Crisis” in the U.S.?
That is a hard question to answer. The phrase “Trash Crisis” conjures thoughts of trash piled up in our houses, backyards and streets, bringing all sorts of health hazards. So, the general answer is we cannot remain stagnant. We need to adjust the path that we are on, and change waste management system so that it adapts to the present conditions. That starts with expanding landfill design past just technical aspects.


Left: eMSE berm construction creating airspace.
Right: Construction of an eMSE berm.
Images courtesy of En-CAP IT.

Available Land for Waste Management is Dwindling
The days of loading up the family station wagon with the week’s trash and driving to the town dump are long gone. Communities are campaigning to close their local landfills every day. Just Google “not in my backyard landfill” and you will come up with 3.7 million hits. Re-introduction of environmental justice legislation in many states has brought phrases like “fair treatment” and “disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences” and runs the risk of reverting to micro-landfills.

Conversion of Existing Landfills to Regional Based
Closing one landfill means the expansion of another, resulting in an acceptance of a regional-based waste management system. However, this trend is constantly under attack because people do not want any trash in their community. Landfills within this system need to be properly maximized, not closed.

To fend off a trash crisis—at the national, state, county or community level—long-term landfill design becomes a much more important component. Traditional approaches need to be adjusted in order to anticipate the needs of the communities the landfill serves. It all starts with planning, communication and innovation to be successful.

Place More Importance on the Process
Environmental leaders need to “see the whole board”. In other words, create a landfill design that is flexible, scalable and compatible with their community’s waste management plan. The process should not only prepare for today’s capacity, but also plan for future changes. Consider how your landfill design will work to achieve the desired outcome. This requires that the process framework be specifically developed and adapted to fit the circumstances in which the site is operating and include all variables both present and future. A prime example of this is a landfill’s lifecycle capacity; the importance of present and future capacity should be an important part of your landfill design. Furthermore, it is essential to develop a landfill design plan that considers the link between the environmental problem, governance and management processes. Your landfill design process must be malleable, flexible, and scalable to meet changing regulations and expectations.


Early concept of an eMSE berm.

Every good landfill design solves the known issues; however, a great landfill design sets up solutions for any anticipated issues that could develop. Alternative pathways should be developed that create a middle path scenario where all stakeholders are driven toward the short-term goal without hindering the maximum benefit achieved over the complete landfill life cycle. For example, when scoping a possible landfill expansion, a significant headwind developed concerning raising the height to 370′ over its existing 250′ height. This landfill design should anticipate this possible headwind and develop a plan to maximize the landfill below 250′, preserving optionality of the height increase sometime in the future. This way, the landfill literally creates the “base” for a future vertical expansion, without creating structural limitations. A middle path.

Other examples include stability berms to solve slope stability concerns, stacked leachate collection systems to solve leachate saturation, active gas collection systems to remove harmful gases or structural post-landfill lifecycle infrastructure to preserve optionally. In a lot of cases these items are void from the landfill design because the current process is only considering the short-term objective, not the long-term anticipated issues. At times these solutions are applied reactively, resulting in costly, less effective solutions. Because environmental negotiations like landfill capacity issues have become so contentious, finding a middle path is a challenge, but not preparing for that challenge makes it almost impossible. Your landfill design process must plan for headwinds and develop a Plan B, C, D, etc.

The Right Tools for the Job
The challenge for environmental managers is to find the right tools to implement for their landfill project. There are plenty of environmental solutions out there and the best ones address environmental, economic and social interests. Innovation can also help your landfill design. In fact, incremental innovation is most common, building on something that already exists. As a result, few stakeholders are looking for the most environmentally friendly solution because of the preconceived notion that it is experimental or will come at a higher price. They may think that it is better to make the best of “what is” and not consider “what could be.” As a result, their landfill design is missing an important component—looking past traditional approaches. In addition, taking advantage of your human resources, including internal teams and external partners, like consultants, can be quite beneficial since everyone looks at it from a different angle. Your landfill design process must find and allow for alternatives to traditional methods.

Continuous Quality Improvement
With a stagnant process, your data can be unreliable and out of compliance. By the time a decision is made to modernize the processes to current expectations, you are already behind. With continuous improvement, the changes are part of the regular activity, and your landfill design will not be as challenging. When you think you have it figured out, restart the process all over again constantly looking for improvements. Your landfill design process must always be self-improving every step of the way.

Engineers spend years developing their landfill design—most trying a traditional approach to solve a less then traditional problem. Leaders in environmental space cannot have tunnel vision when looking for the proper landfill design to meet their environmental challenges. Instead, they need be aware of a variety of resources will widen their options when solving the challenges faced. | WA

John P. Swenson is the Founder, Inventor and Managing Partner of EnCAP-IT (Glen Allen, VA). During his 26+-year career in the waste industry, he has learned all facets of non-hazardous solid waste management. More than 13 years ago, he put his broad knowledge of waste and business management to work to become a leader in responsible environmental stewardship by promoting EnCAP-IT’s patented safeBERM® innovations to help the waste, power and other industries adopt methods for more efficient, environmentally friendly, cost-effective nonhazardous waste disposal and responsible reuse. He can be reached at [email protected].