When PFAS regulations hit, there will likely be a market created in which the demand will far outweigh the supply and the average turnaround time to commission a solution could run anywhere from several months or up to two years. It is time to up your game and prepare.
By Ryan March and Brad Granley

We’ve now entered the “Age of PFAS” in solid waste and it is no longer just other people’s problem. The landscape of the landfill industry is on the verge of a permanent, difficult, but necessary change to protect what is most important—humans—by protecting downstream drinking water, which represents the greatest health exposure pathway.

The war on PFAS has begun and no doubt you have heard something about it. The problem we have seen is that guidance and information is scattered, and communications … the same. This has left many holding off creating a game plan to prepare for a most certain set of new regulations. That is right, if you operate a landfill (open or closed), at some point you will need to implement a proven solution. This will cost money and time. Sorry for the bad news, but this is near as guaranteed as death and the tax man. Regulations are likely to drop later in 2024 with PFAS limit guidelines and a timeframe for corrective action.

LEEF Foam Fractionation System.
Photo courtesy of Leachate Management Systems.

Good and Bad News
Ninety-nine percent of landfills are not ready. When new regulations come to a crossroads and solutions are quickly needed for the very first time, there are never any guarantees. What we know it is going to cost money and time, and the numbers are not pretty in most cases. That is the bad news.

The good news, however, is that since Jim Little of Waste Connections challenged the industry to find solutions (and fast) at the 2022 Global Waste Management Symposium, innovators have been hard at work devising differentiated solutions to solve the impending crisis. To the industry as a whole, the cost for treating leachate will collectively reach into the billions over time. To individual landfills, the pain will be more severe for the unprepared. Those facilities may be forced to implement a temporary solution at high cost, followed by a permanent one.

We all know very well that solutions take time. If you are in landfill operations I can only tell you this: time is of the essence. Did you know POTWs have been served anywhere from 90 days to immediate notice of cutoffs to landfill leachate disposal in several areas of the country this past year? These events have continued into 2024, meaning that hauling and direct connects are at high risk.

What Solutions Will Work Long-Term for My Facility?
That is a tough question to answer. Every single site has its nuances, and each one is subject to change over time. The good news is, we know this. We have got this. So, the following information is not fluff. It is not a sales pitch. It is real and data driven information based on the fact that we live and breathe PFAS and the regulatory landscape each and every day since this all began.

So, welcome to the world of leachate, where the glamour is nonexistent, but the importance is sky-high! Here is our no-nonsense, slightly cheeky guide to the top 10 (or so) methods for treating and disposing of landfill leachate in 2024 and beyond.

#1: Offsite Disposal via Tanker Truck (Likely to be far more expensive, and even obsolete in some areas)
Rating: 3/10
How it Works: Just like taking out the trash, but for leachate. Tanker trucks haul it away to a treatment facility.
Advantages: Out of sight, out of mind; the way we have always done it
Disadvantages: Costs more than a Starbucks addiction. With upcoming PFAS regulations and POTW cutoffs expected, think of it as trying to send your trouble-making cousin to a fancy boarding school.
Cost and Sustainability: Expensive with a capital “E”. Low sustainability score, like driving a giant gas-guzzler in an eco-friendly parade. Diesel-burning tanker trucks driving tens of thousands of miles does not cut it.

#2: Biological Treatment (Not suitable for PFAS removal)
Rating: 2/10
How it Works: Bacteria to the rescue! Microorganisms break down the nasties in leachate.
Advantages: Nature’s way of cleaning, like tiny janitors.
Disadvantages: Sometimes bacteria call in sick, especially with complex contaminants, and PFAS does not make for a tasty meal to our micro-friends (i.e., PFAS is not effectively degraded). Can be paired with reverse osmosis.
Cost and Sustainability: Middle of the road cost, but pretty green in terms of sustainability.

#3: Chemical Treatment (Not suitable for PFAS removal)
Rating: 2/10
How it Works: Chemicals react with pollutants to neutralize them.
Advantages: Like a chemistry set for adults. Effective for specific contaminants.
Disadvantages: Can create by-products; not always the eco-friendliest option, and PFAS has a free pass against most all chemical treatments.
Cost and Sustainability: Moderate cost, sustainability varies like a mood ring.

#4: Reverse Osmosis (Terrific PFAS solution)
Rating: 8/10
How it Works: High-pressure system forces leachate through a semi-permeable membrane. Think of it as a bouncer at a club, only letting the small, harmless molecules through.
Advantages: Highly effective, like a Swiss Army knife for impurities.
Disadvantages: Points lost due to RO reject (10 to 30 percent). Energy-intensive; membranes do not last forever, like your New Year’s resolutions. Scaling can be a major pain, but is somewhat solvable.
Cost and Sustainability: Higher cost, but good sustainability creds. PFAS in RO reject will still require an intensive method of treatment.

#5: Evaporation (Possible solution for PFAS)
Rating: 5/10 – 8/10 Dependant on system chosen
How it Works: Heating leachate to evaporate water, leaving the contaminants behind. A system paired with landfill gas power brings this rating to a 7/10, that energy has a value today though.
Advantages: Simple concept, like boiling water for tea. Perhaps a few more bells and whistles.
Disadvantages: Energy-hungry and sometimes leaves a nasty residue. Many questions surrounding potential airborne PFAS.
Cost and Sustainability: Not the cheapest, not the most sustainable—like flying first class when you could have taken a train.

#6: Phyto-Remediation (A Phenomenal PFAS solution on the right properties)
Rating: 8/10 (with PFAS Regulations 9/10)
How it Works: Specially engineered plants (trees and/or grasses) consume leachate like a football team drinking Gatorade on a hot summer day.
Advantages: Turns a problem into a solution. Sequesters carbon and can often be a total disposal solution with no leachate leaving a site. Cost effective, makes for great PR and takes diesel-burning tanker trucks off the road.
Disadvantages: Requires a specific setup; not a one-size-fits-all; need enough space on landfill.
Cost and Sustainability: Cost-effective and seriously sustainable; it does not get any greener than plants.

#7: Sedimentation and Flotation (Not an effective PFAS solution)
Rating: 3/10
How it Works: Physical-chemical separation techniques to remove solids and contaminants.
Advantages: Straightforward, a little bit like using a strainer in your kitchen.
Disadvantages: Limited effectiveness; does not deal with dissolved nasties or enough PFAS.
Cost and Sustainability: Easy on the wallet, but not a sustainability superstar.

#8: Electrochemical Oxidation Processes and Supercritical Water Oxidation (SCWO)
Rating: 9.1/10 (for PFAS concentrates)
How it Works: High-tech processes that involves destroying C-F bonds.
Advantages: PFAS destruction, like a superhero team-up for pollutants, great for pairing with other PFAS concentrating technologies.

Disadvantages: Can be complex and pricey (like a high-maintenance sports car), and not for high flow rates.
Cost and Sustainability: Cost can be high, not suitable for full leachate flow, but a sustainability show-off.

#9: Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) and Ion Exchange (IX) (Effective PFAS removal in landfill leachate only if employed at tail end of a larger treatment process)
Rating: 5/10
How it Works: High surface area and affinity for organic compounds, GAC/IX effectively adsorbs PFAS molecules.
Advantages: Proven and effective for removing various PFAS compounds; like the bartender that will always listen to your story as long as the tab is open.
Disadvantages: Consumable materials requiring frequent disposal or regeneration, large rating drop due to strong propensity to clog with leachate.
Cost and Sustainability: One of the more sustainable options for some leachate streams, but may end up looking like a Dodge Colt when you should have bought a Ram 4×4.

#10: Deep Well Injection (A PFAS solution)
Rating: 7/10 (if a facility nearby)
How it Works: This method involves injecting PFAS waste deep underground through wells drilled in confined geological formations.Advantages: Available in certain areas, sanctioned by USEPA.
Disadvantages: Questions surround its viability and true environmental cost, raising concerns about whether it effectively removes PFAS from the environment. Costly, limited locations.
Cost and Sustainability: See above.

#11: Natural Evaporation
Rating: Potential to be an 8 to 9 for some sites
*Air restrictions unknown. More to come.

#12: Foam Fractionation (Rated #1 Solution for landfills by Lingke Zeng of Sanborn Head)
Rating: 9.5/10
How it Works: Foam Fractionation is a well-established process for selectively separating surface-active PFAS molecules based on their amphiphilic (hydrophilic and hydrophobic) characteristics. These properties essentially call on the PFAS molecules to catch a wave and ride out on bubbles.
Advantages: Simple, yet effective. FF proven to work. Does not require pretreatment and can treat high-volume streams. It is like an efficient train that will get you there all day long.
Disadvantages: Requires some tinkering for short chains and precursors, plus disposal or destruction of foamate residuals.

Cost and Sustainability: Reasonable upfront cost, excellent sustainability performance, and allows for more cost-effective destruction of concentrated PFAS stream. FF is the horse a couple of legs in front of the rest.

What Should I Do Next?
We cannot speak more direct or truer words: If you are not ready, start getting ready. When PFAS regulations hit, there will likely be a market created in which the demand will far outweigh the supply and the average turnaround time to commission a solution could run anywhere from several months (for those with relationships with solution providers) or up to two years.

Do not shoot the messenger. The best advice we can give is:
1. Start doing your homework immediately and become informed: read, attend sessions at conferences, discuss with colleagues, understand existing and expected regulations and PFAS solutions.
2. Truly work through how a potential cut-off would affect your facilities and pocketbook.
3. Talk to trusted industry experts, understand options available, and find the best solution for your site (in advance).
4. Get ready to a point such that when you are required (when the hammer drops) or ready (by choice) to act, all you have to do is make a call and pull the trigger.

And there you have it, folks. The top 10 (or so) methods for treating and disposing PFAS-impacted landfill leachate, from the “meh” to the “wow!” Remember, with PFAS restrictions soon coming into play, it is time to up your game and prepare. Stay green and slightly mean, my waste warriors. | WA

Ryan March is a Director of Innovation with Leachate Management Specialists. His wide range of experience has focused on bringing new technologies to those most in need. He can be reached at (905) 999-7202 or e-mail [email protected].

Brad Granley, P.E., is President and Founder of Leachate Management Specialists. His 25+ years of experience include complex remediation projects in his early career, and an almost exclusive focus in the solid waste industry the last 15+ years. He can be reached at (720) 556-4801 or e-mail [email protected].

Leachate Management Specialists has been providing the industry with some of the most sustainable, innovative, and cost-effective solutions for treatment and disposal of landfill leachate and wastewater since 2013. That is why this article exists, to help our fellow friends and industry colleagues. The group is a family firm that always works in the best interest of its clients and takes great pride in finding the right leachate solution for each and every site with self-interests always pushed aside. More importantly, they got ahead of this thing called PFAS and found the best solutions on the planet to fit into an industry where there is no such thing as one-size fits all. For more information, visit www.leachate.us.

If you have questions or would like to see specific topics dissected in their webinars and in future articles in this column, e-mail [email protected].