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SCS Engineers’ Viswanathan Helps Landfill Operators Brace for the Future

SCS Engineers’ Viswanathan Helps Landfill Operators Brace for the Future

The Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient discusses how she has helped integrate landfill diversion systems, make new products and cut emissions.

Srividhya (Vidhya) Viswanathan knows how to think large scale, and she knows how to deal with complexities. She has worked on some of the largest landfill sites in California, lending her technical expertise to support their multifaceted, integrated solid waste management programs. 

Whether it be to oversee the design and build of a landfill gas recovery system or to oversee design and permitting of a compost project that will eventually receive 40,000 tons a year of organic waste, it’s never a simple job.

Beginning her career with the city of Lawton, Okla., 13 years ago, Viswanathan was responsible for solid waste management operations, permitting and compliance reporting.

Since joining SCS Engineers in 2012, she has worked her way up from senior project professional to her current role as vice president and project director, focused on solid waste planning for sustainable landfills, including renewable energy, compost and recycle projects and programs.

Her programs and engineering designs are based on her expertise in multiple areas, which has served SCS clients well, says Michelle Leonard, vice president of SCS Engineers and expert in solid waste planning, recycling and sustainability.

“Those programs are successful because Vidhya understands what large landfill operations can achieve. And she can identify and incorporate existing infrastructure as well as operations to build future infrastructure,” says Leonard.

We sat down with the 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient to learn what excites her about sustainable materials management. She also gave us an idea of how she has helped integrate landfill diversion systems, make new products and ultimately cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Waste360: Tell us about your current work with SCS’ Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) team.

Vidhya Viswanathan: On every project, my team and I work with various experts within SCS who belong to the SMM team, ranging from regulatory and compliance professionals, economists, composting and energy specialists.  

The SMM team promotes reuse, recycling and conservation programs, and—more importantly—emphasizes sustainable materials management by considering the entire lifecycle of products, processes and systems. We leverage systems to help our clients eliminate waste by reducing consumption and getting products and packaging redesigned for reuse and repair and then recycled or composted.  

I now work closely with Michelle Leonard and her SMM team to learn and improve my understanding of the changes in the organics management world, so I can bring more value to my clients and peers.

Waste360: You and your team worked on the design and construction of a huge aerated static pile composting system for the city of San Diego, Calif. Tell us more about your role.

Vidhya Viswanathan: As the project director, I oversaw the design and permitting of the systems, and our operation, maintenance and monitoring team, along with our subcontractors and key vendors, performed the construction.   

The city is working toward diverting 100,000 tons per year of organic waste from landfill; 60,000 tons are to be diverted via collaboration with nonprofit food programs, and the remaining 40,000 tons per year will be turned to compost. The system recently completed a 60-day testing period, and we are evaluating the results. We also designed the system so that it can expand by 20,000 tons in the future. 

SCS Engineers’ Viswanathan Helps Landfill Operators Brace for the Future

Waste360: Your nominator, Michelle Leonard, described you as a holistic, forward thinker. Can you give an example of a holistic approach and how might it help with long-term planning?

Vidhya Viswanathan: Truly sustainable programs address multiple factors as they reach for landfill gas recovery and recycle, reuse, reduce goals. Together, the client and I take an integrated approach to address these factors and any issues concerning their facilities/sites, as opposed to focusing on a single area or system.

For example, the city of San Diego operates a sizable facility with landfilling, recycling and composting as well as onsite renewable energy generation programs. My engineering team just completed a large design project for the expansion of the existing landfill gas collection and control system, and our operations team now manages the system.

At the same time, we also supported the city with its composting project. 

At first blush, landfilling versus composting may come across as two contradictory operations. However, recovered landfill gas is converted to electricity, which, in turn, may power the composting system in the future. 

So, rather than making short-term decisions to landfill recyclable or compostable materials, the city is making long-term efforts, with a focus on integration of systems, to reduce, reuse and divert. I am helping SCS to support the city along the way through this holistic approach.

Waste360: What is the largest site you have worked on? And what were you tasked with doing?

Vidhya Viswanathan: I work on several large sites including Miramar, Otay and Sycamore landfills, all located within the County of San Diego. All these sites have landfilling, recycling and onsite renewable energy generation programs and are working toward additional organics diversion efforts.

As the client manager, I assist the owners in planning and managing different aspects of their solid waste program. Specifically, my team works on landfill gas collection and control system five-year planning, design and construction observation. 

Waste360: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in working on such large sites? 

Vidhya Viswanathan: Large landfills move at an extremely fast pace. They generally operate for a minimum of 10 hours a day. I actually have a site that operates 24 hours a day, so staying ahead and always keeping the lines of communication open can be challenging. Our teams have protocols in place to make sure we communicate clearly with our clients and stay on pace with activities.

Waste360: What, in your experience, has been key to the success of a renewable energy program?

Vidhya Viswanathan: It all begins with listening to our clients, understanding their needs or goals and the socioeconomic and legislative drivers. Then, we bring together the necessary expertise to build a plan or design the system(s) to achieve the goals.

Each plan or design is custom and specific to the site because no two landfills or clients have the same priorities, climate or science within their geographical locations. 

But one common denominator among such projects is that they all involve addressing multifaceted, complex challenges. For example, renewable energy programs on landfills must optimize landfill gas recovery and minimize downtime of the systems while maintaining regulatory compliance for both the landfill and energy facility. Balancing all these priorities can be involved.

Waste360: What are your immediate career goals?

Vidhya Viswanathan: I expect to complete the city of San Diego project successfully and apply what I’ve learned for the benefit of other clients and share the knowledge with our industry and my peers.

I am engaging more in projects that are focused on SMM. These projects are highly interesting to me because I can incorporate my engineering skills and experience in solid waste management but also expand my opportunities to design and implement programs and infrastructure that are based on the specific objectives of SMM.

Aside from that, I also chair SCS’ Young Professionals (YPs) Planning Committee, and I’m working with a great team of YPs to put in place programs for the growth and development of the solid waste industry’s next generation of leaders.

Waste360: What are your longer-term career goals?

Vidhya Viswanathan: I am interested in continuing to solve the problems faced by the solid waste industry and hope I make a meaningful impact.

I aspire to continue learning about new applications of my engineering skills and to design and implement solid waste facilities that contribute to a more sustainable solid waste management system. We will always need landfills for materials that we cannot reuse, recycle or compost, but I would also like to design new facilities to handle materials for the highest and best use. 

I also see myself as a leader for the next generation of engineers at SCS and in our industry. I hope to expand my leadership position through involvement in professional organizations such as the National Waste & Recycling Association and the Solid Waste Association of North America and play a role in fostering the development of the next generation of solid waste (or should I say SMM) engineers.

Waste360: How do you define success?

Vidhya Viswanathan: Success to me is solving my clients' challenges, meeting their goals and driving the growth of my team and SCS as a whole!

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