A Balancing Act

Developing or expanding a landfill requires developers to address both design issues and community concerns.

April 1, 2009

7 Min Read
A Balancing Act

Dave Call and Joe Benco

The successful siting of a landfill is a multi-pronged effort that must weigh environmental and engineering issues with political challenges, economic viability and social concerns. While there has been about a 75 percent decline in the number of operating landfills from 1988 to 2008, the amount of garbage generated in the United States continues to increase, resulting in a greater need to build new regional facilities or to expand existing sites. Both processes must engage all interested parties, from beginning to end, to develop a scientifically sound and socially acceptable site.

It goes without saying that landfills are an integral component of waste management operations, and the solid waste industry provides a vital public service that ensures the health and safety of citizens across the United States. Yet despite this vital role, and even with the significant engineering design and planning that goes into a modern landfill, siting a new facility or expanding an existing landfill presents an extraordinary challenge.

To better understand the challenge, let's examine the complex process of successful landfill siting. This process doesn't happen in a vacuum or overnight, and several steps may occur simultaneously. In fact, a uniform siting process does not exist for the entire country, primarily because each state and local government has different rules and regulations for land use approvals and other entitlements. A typical landfill siting process may take as few as three years from start to finish, but often takes five or more years.


The objective of any landfill development project is to ensure the site is environmentally and socially acceptable, and fills a defined and needed role. The landfill's purpose must be clearly established with the stakeholders in the community at the project's onset to ensure open communications and to address concerns.

When examining the need for a new landfill or the expansion of an existing facility, the developer must identify the long-term strategy for the market. The project proponents must consider economic justification, technical challenges and political feasibility. Some questions to address:

  • Is a new or expanded site needed?

  • When will the site be needed?

  • What is the area's potential for future growth?

  • What types of waste will the landfill receive?

  • How much waste should the landfill be designed to accept?

  • What is the desired lifespan of the facility?

  • Who will own and operate the facility?


Once you have determined the landfill's role, you can begin to design a facility. A site should be designed to serve the needs of the community, to maximize environmental protection and to minimize impact on the broader community.

Above all, the design must be based on sound science. A good design always takes into consideration geological conditions, including soil type and hydrology. Other key considerations include access to transportation corridors, compatibility with adjacent land uses and potential visual impacts.

Today's landfill is not just a place to put your trash — it is a complex system with many complementary design features that are protective of health and the environment. These features typically include:

  • composite liners, which are compacted clay bases covered with plastic liners that are designed to be versatile, resistant to light, and impervious to chemicals and other liquids;

  • leachate collection systems, which are installed on top of the liner to capture liquid that collects after rain and liquids in the trash itself; and

  • landfill gas collection systems, which allow the gas produced during decomposition to be collected, cleaned and used in many beneficial ways, such as power generation.

Finally, when sections of the landfill are ready to close, they are covered with a composite cap, which consists of layers of clay, plastic liner and vegetative material. All of these systems work together to protect the environment and public health.


Managing function and form are only the beginning. Making sure that a landfill will fit in with the community is the lynchpin of the siting process.

There are some who argue that the best place for a landfill is a remote location, one that is out of the sight and mind of the general public. Realistically, however, a landfill often is unable to avoid proximity to development, and communities frequently expand around existing landfills, transforming a once quiet and remote area into a fully developed community.

Because a landfill will have neighbors, it is critical to develop a relationship and cultivate trust with local residents and businesses. It is a cooperative effort that takes time, hard work and resources.

Landfill developers should involve the public early on in any siting process. Conduct polls, hold meetings and send letters to members of the community. Talk to neighbors and local officials, and address their questions. Have regular open houses at the site, which will give the public a chance to see the facility and operators a chance to explain how much design and effort goes into a landfill.

Furthermore, encourage the management staff to be active in the community and to know their neighbors. Identify project supporters and opponents, and establish a relationship with both. Not all area residents will be pleased with the project, but they are more likely to cooperate if they are provided accurate information.

Once you have established a successful relationship, it must be continuously monitored and protected. It can take many years to build a level of trust, and one misstep can ruin all of the hard work. If you stumble, work quickly to resolve the issue — it's another opportunity to further strengthen ties to the community.

Landfill development must be a two-way street. If the community does not believe that it will receive value from the project, it is more likely to oppose it. Value to the community comes in many forms, and is not necessarily limited to financial support through host fees or subsidized disposal.

Value also includes the jobs that the landfill brings to the community, both directly and indirectly through the businesses that the landfill supports. Likewise, businesses enrich the surrounding area when they participate in civic activities, such as youth sports, the arts and local festivals. A successful landfill siting strategy should include a plan for how to become an active member of the community.

A Model Public-Private Partnership

The Newton County Landfill in Morocco, Ind., is a perfect example of how a firm's investment in its community created economic and environmental benefits for the area. When Phoenix-based Republic Services (Allied Waste at the time) was looking for a regional landfill site in the state, the company discovered that Newton County owned an old, unlined site that was not up to Subtitle D standards.

In partnership with the county, Republic purchased the property and built a modern, lined landfill. Republic moved the material from the old landfill into the new facility, eliminating a potential environmental liability. Republic also signed a good neighbor agreement with the county, which provided host fees that funded new medical response equipment and an improved municipal center. A new business park adjacent to the site uses renewable energy provided by the landfill, and Republic also created a pheasant habitat in the buffer zone.

The company plans to roll out additional benefits such as a community recycling center, which will allow Newton County residents to drop off recyclables free of charge. The company saw this facility as both a benefit for the community and as a reflection of its commitment to extending its relationship with Indiana even further.

The Right Balance

The need for environmentally sound waste disposal capacity is evident. Fulfilling that need by balancing science, politics and the concerns of local citizens is a cooperative effort that at times will be emotional, controversial and challenging. But ignoring any one component of the process may result in delay or cancellation of the project.

Dave Call is vice president of landfill development for Phoenix-based Republic Services. Joe Benco is vice president of engineering and environmental management for the firm.

Stay in the Know - Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Join a network of more than 90,000 waste and recycling industry professionals. Get the latest news and insights straight to your inbox. Free.

You May Also Like