Like a Good Neighbor

Word Association is a game landfill managers no doubt hate to play. Just say the word “landfill,” and people often picture the old town dump from decades ago, remembering it as not a nice place to visit.

Similarly, most people turn up their noses at odors, litter and truck traffic. Yet those three things are largely unavoidable characteristics of today's landfills — and are often viewed by neighbors as the sites' biggest nuisances.

So, how to eliminate a landfill's negative stereotypes, especially as residential communities expand and inch closer to your waste facility?

“There are certain aspects of a facility that you can't eliminate,” says Tim O'Donnell, general manager for Republic Services' Modern Landfill in York County, Pa. “But what you have to do is do a better job [of managing them] than people think you can.”

Exceed Expectations

Twenty years ago, a lot of the focus on landfills dealt with science and technology, O'Donnell says. For instance, people were concerned about whether liners would work, whether there would be groundwater contamination or how chemicals would impact neighborhoods. “That debate pretty well ended,” he says. “The public and regulators realize technology is sound and works well. What you see now when you look at high-profile landfill stories in the media always boils down to aesthetic issues.”

For instance, “odor is the number one Achilles heel at any landfill,” O'Donnell notes. Landfill managers traditionally have tried to mask odors by spraying deodorizers into the air, but then operators began hearing complaints about too much deodorant as often as they received comments about odors. “That philosophy might meet expectations, but it won't exceed [them],” he says. And exceeding expectations is the only way to prevent a landfill from being seen as a community eyesore, he adds.

At his 5,000-ton-per-day facility in south central Pennsylvania, O'Donnell tries to prevent odors from getting into the air to begin with by using gas extraction and landfill capping and cover systems.

With regard to litter, the surrounding community, a rural area that is gradually becoming more suburban as more homes are built, expects the Modern Landfill to abide by regulations that mandate landfill managers curb litter from blowing offsite. But the regulations are just a minimum guideline, O'Donnell notes.

“The regulations say we have to clean it up within seven days,” he says. “A landfill can look trashy inside the facility gates and be compliant, but that would look bad.”

To clean up wind-blown trash on blustery days, O'Donnell will hire temporary employees to pick up litter around the landfill. He also will send those workers out into the community to pick up litter on non-facility roadways. “We may not have put the litter out there, but we clean it up anyway,” O'Donnell says.

Such practices not only help to exceed neighbors' expectations about the site, they illustrate that Modern Landfill is part of the local community. Landfill personnel take ownership of and have membership in the community, O'Donnell adds.

Besides just giving money to local charities and other organizations like little leagues, which the landfill does, several employees also are part of the local volunteer fire department. And following a recent heavy winter storm, landfill workers helped to clear snow and ice from the community.

“Let people know it's important for you to be there,” O'Donnell recommends to other landfill managers. “If they don't see that, people just see you as a negative.”

Caretakers of the Community

Thomas Hadden, executive director for Metro Waste Authority (MWA) in Des Moines, Iowa, agrees that being a valued member of the local community is key to being perceived as a good neighbor. He should know. As an integrated waste authority, MWA is an independent government agency comprised of 16 towns and cities, one county and six planning members.

MWA was designated to manage the landfill for the Polk County area after state law required all Iowa communities to properly dispose of their solid waste in a sanitary landfill. The authority now operates the 1,750-ton-per-day landfill, a transfer station, a regional collection center that handles household hazardous waste, a contracted curbside recycling program and a composting program.

One way in which the landfill involves itself in the local community is by being a leader in environmental sciences, Hadden says. For instance, the authority has been working with Camp Creek Watershed to protect and clean up an approximately 25-acre watershed and Camp Creek, which runs through its property.

MWA provides $2,500 grants to schools, businesses, public and private groups/clubs, and neighborhood associations for projects with an environmental focus. The authority has an awards program to honor businesses, organizations and/or citizens who constantly work to take care of central Iowa's environment.

Also, the authority donates about 5 cents per ton of landfilled waste, or $25,000 per year, to the local township fire department for its operations. And MWA contributes about 10 cents per ton of landfilled waste, amounting to about $50,000 per year, to two local school districts to use for environmental sciences education.

Of course, Hadden says his landfill also covers the basics: preventing trash from blowing around with internal litter fences, controlling odors with its alternative daily cover and by monitoring incoming materials, and keeping surrounding streets clean by enforcing a truck tarping policy.

Although MWA's landfill is located next to a major east-west highway, the authority doesn't want noise and litter to irritate the local community, Hadden says. So, MWA adopted nine miles of highway around its facility that the authority patrols and cleans. The authority also voluntarily purchased approximately 800 acres of “buffer” property around the landfill to ensure the area is aesthetically pleasing and to reduce the likelihood of noises bothering neighbors. “You'd be hard pressed to tell there's a landfill operating there,” Hadden comments.

Envy of the Neighborhood

It's one thing for residents not to know a landfill is in their community. It's another thing for people to be so excited about a landfill that there's a waiting list to enter the property. But such is the case at Waste Management's (WM) GROWS/Tullytown complex, located in Pennsylvania about 25 miles north of Philadelphia.

According to Judy Archibald, director of public affairs for the complex, which includes two landfills (one 10,000 ton-per-day site, the other an 8,600-ton-per-day site), a recycling center and a waste-to-energy plant. Around the facility's permitted areas, WM has created a landscaped buffer area and maintains the 35 miles that lead to the site to establish a neat, clean look. Yet what has become a crown jewel of the site is the recreational area between the two disposal sites. The area features cabins, campsites and three lakes stocked with fish.

To access the site for boating and fishing, people must be part of the Penn Warner Club, which has approximately 2,000 members and a long waiting list of people hoping to join.

Archibald indicates the complex's commitment to wildlife habitat protection programs is what makes its facility the envy of the neighborhood. The site was recognized by the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) for its contributions to wildlife habitat conservation and has been certified by the council's wildlife habitat certification program. The site also is part of WHC's Corporate Lands for Learning initiative, which strives to help people understand the connection between corporate environmental initiatives and their surrounding communities.

Besides those environmental programs, GROWS/Tullytown is involved with area tree plantings, revegetation of a forest area with native trees and shrubs, and the Delaware Estuary, among other programs. The facility also has an ongoing business and education partnership with local schools to provide educational opportunities in ecology.

“Probably 10 to 13 years ago, we did have some community issues,” Archibald says. “But by launching an aggressive community relations program, we've been able to help build support and acceptance in the community as a trusted and valued neighbor.”

The key to pulling off this “good neighbor policy,” Archibald says, is teamwork. Good community relations have “three essential elements as a foundation,” she says. “Leadership, a shared vision and commitment.”

Expect to Educate

No matter how many environmental programs a facility puts together, without good education efforts, it can't change the public's perception of a landfill. IESI's Seneca Meadows Landfill in central New York has taken that idea to heart, hiring a full-time public relations coordinator to help educate the public about the site and keep the public informed about the company's values.

As part of her job, the PR coordinator issues press releases and uses advertising to inform the public about important facility milestones. She also oversees the community education program, in which she goes into area schools and meets with local organizations, like the Kiwanis, to teach the public about recycling and waste management. And, she coordinates the 6,000-ton-per-day facility's tree sapling giveaway on Arbor Day, a mulch giveaway and an open house.

Initiated four years ago, the annual open house includes a 45-minute, 55-passenger bus tour of the facility. Yet the event involves much more than a leisurely drive around the landfill grounds, says Don Gentilcore, district manager for the site.

At the open house, booths are set up and manned by the landfill's engineers, who discuss different landfill designs and programs. There is an HDPE landfill liner welding demonstration to show how liner seams are melded together. A model landfill also is on display.

The event also features children's games, photo opportunities in front of the heavy equipment and a barbecue. A local radio station broadcasts from the open house, and helps to publicize the event, which now attracts 1,500 to 2,000 visitors who want to learn more about the landfill.

“Educating the public on what a modern landfill facility is is really beneficial to us and to the surrounding community,” Gentilcore says. “We found the best way to keep the public happy is by educating them about the facility and keeping them informed.”

That interaction, Gentilcore adds, is a proactive approach to solving problems before they become too large. By developing a relationship, the landfill staff also creates a situation in which problems can be handled in an atmosphere of trust. When problems do arise, landfill managers have to react quickly, Gentilcore says, noting that Seneca Meadows has a 1-800 hotline to allow neighbors to report concerns quickly.

In the end, neighbors are more likely to trust a landfill when they see the site as a friend, not a foe, of the community.

“Neighbors expect you to be clean, not smell bad and that trash trucks that use the facility will follow rules,” Modern Landfill's O'Donnell says. “That's the bottom rung of expectations. Exceeding expectations is the key to survival in this business today.”

Patricia-Anne Tom is the former editor of Waste Age and is based in El Cerrito, Calif.