Sarah Gustitus-Graham Dives into the Challenges of Landfills

Destined for the waste industry, Sarah Gustitus-Graham has spent the better part of her life striving to make a positive impact on the waste industry, solving today's issues through her work engineering and planning new landfills.

Gage Edwards, Content Producer

July 17, 2023

4 Min Read

Usually when I speak to someone in the waste industry, I like to know how they got to where they are currently. Typically, that story involves starting somewhere totally different in an unrelated industry, not ever expecting to end up in the world of waste.

However, my conservation with 40 Under 40 award winner, Sarah Gustitus-Graham was much, much different as her path was always set to make an impact on the waste industry, and she’s done so in an award-winning fashion.

Gustitus-Graham, PhD, PE, Engineer, Geosyntec Consultants, was destined to make a difference in the waste industry, following in her parent’s footsteps, who are also in the waste industry. Gustitus-Graham said she always thought it was intriguing to see what people threw away and how trash varied from place to place.

Being the tallest person in her research groups at the University of Florida, Gustitus-Graham was literally getting her hands dirty with her work when she was jumping into dumpsters. From there, working on her master’s degree, Gustitus-Graham couldn’t shake the thought of waste and went on to work with landfill liners for her PhD research. Toward the end of her impressive educational journey, Gustitus-Graham decided she wanted to be on the practical side of the world and solve the problems that needed to be solved now, specifically in solid waste.

“I wanted to be solving the problems that needed to be solved now, like solid waste is an industry with constantly evolving needs that I want it to be there meeting those needs and learning more about operations,” said Gustitus-Graham.

Passion and education has led Gustitus-Graham to designing landfills which is quite the uphill task as she described it to me as a “layered cake of engineering problems.” Thankfully, we’re in her very capable hands, ensuring our landfills operate efficiently. From the bottom of the pile, building a strong foundation and understanding settlement issues for proper leachate flow all the way up to the waste itself, designing landfills is no simple matter.

“It's really the whole smorgasbord of environmental engineering concepts come together. It’s great fun,” said Gustitus-Graham.

Landfills are a lot like the fingertips of the world, stick with me. Similar in a lot of ways and face a lot of the same issues, but each one is unique for several reasons. But each is accepting of our trash and we’re not always as nice to landfills as we need to be. On consumers are contributing to these facilities the wrong way, Gustitus-Graham mentions we need to produce less waste and be aware of exactly what we’re doing to produce waste now.

“The less waste that we’re able to send to the landfill, the longer these landfills are going to last. That’s just the end all be all of it. The less waste you put in the longer time you’ve got to make it work,” said Gustitus-Graham.

“To make it worse, there’s things that really need to change on a societal level with how packaging is done and what’s available to us as consumers, but you know, we still make choices as consumers as well. So, making sure that if you’re recycling, you’re recycling the right way. When you’re making purchases, you’re being cognizant as your socioeconomic status will let you be. Avoiding fast fashion, trying to mend clothes, when possible, instead of buying a brand-new shirt or pair of jeans. Looking at how much packaged food you’re buying. Those little choices accumulate, and the more that we can get those choices to accumulate, the less waste we have going into the landfills and longer lifespan we have on these landfills.”

Before winning her own 40 Under 40 award, Gustitus-Graham would listen to the NothingWasted! Podcast, read about other award winners and wonder what she would have to do in her life to become one of those people. Lucky for us, that wonder, and dedication has given us efficient landfill planning and Gustitus-Graham was rewarded with her sought after prize.

“It was very surreal to be, kind of, ranked alongside some of the other people that won it. There’s some really, truly fascinating and impressive stories of the winners,” Gustitus-Graham. “So, very flattering.”

“It feels a little bit unreal, and I think now, and every year until I’m 40, I’ll probably still be looking at the award and be thinking, “man, I wonder what I have to do to be like one of those people?””

Closing out our conversation, Gustitus-Graham says she encourages people to think about what they’re throwing away and find out where those materials are going. And to think about the people on the front lines of the industry as they do a job that we take for granted but is incredibly important to our everyday lives and our future.

About the Author(s)

Gage Edwards

Content Producer, Waste360

Gage Edwards is a Content Producer at Waste360 and seasoned video editor.

Gage has spent the better part of 10 years creating content in various industries but mostly revolving around video games.

Gage loves video games, theme parks, and loathes littering.

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