At Smith + Gardner, John Fearrington, Project Engineer, manages solid waste facility construction projects, such as Subtitle D cell construction, permanent and temporary closures, landfill gas collection and control systems, and stormwater management infrastructure. He has also assisted public and private clients outside the landfill industry to develop solar and composting facilities.
In this interview, Fearrington, a Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, discusses how he puts his engineering skills to use at Smith + Gardner, and how he works with clients to use innovative new technologies and materials to address evolving waste management challenges.
This interview has been edited for length.
Waste360: What brought you to Smith + Gardner?
John Fearrington: I started in 2011, while I was actually in school at NC State University, which is about a mile-and-a-half down the road from our office in Raleigh, NC. Stacey Smith, who is the president of our company, had always hired civil engineering students part-time or through internships, to give them an idea of what it's like to work in a civil engineering office.
From there, I completely changed my major discipline, and transitioned from structural engineering into the kind of geo-tech solid waste field that I'm in today. I graduated as a structural engineer. I continued to work with Smith + Gardner after I graduated.
Waste360: What was it that you experienced that changed your mind?
John Fearrington: I think I realized that in the solid waste industry, every site is slightly different, and when I was in school, it seemed like when I was doing structural engineering, a lot of it was looking things up in a book. Steel is about the same across the whole entire country. It seemed very systematic versus the landfill business.
[There is] the complexity of each engineering system, but also how even though every site has the same components, you have to design them slightly different. You have to continue to learn and adapt. I knew I had to continually increase my knowledge base to survive and thrive in this business.
Waste360: What are a couple recent projects that you worked on, and what are some considerations that you had to take into account as you were designing them?
John Fearrington: I think the biggest thing, for me, is managing our clients as a consultant. Managing our client expectations and working with them to provide for their needs. From there, it’s trying to provide all aspects of the business, or engineering, that I can to them. Whether it’s from building cells to helping design gas systems or stormwater systems. I try to do as much as I can, and, luckily, we have a very strong group of senior engineers at our company that kind of help fill in the knowledge gaps that I may have. It really is about trying to learn to be a better project manager.
Right now, I’m working on some local permitting for a compost facility; doing some financial models for capital forecasting for solid waste management facilities across the U.S.; as well as leading construction projects, which is a significant part of our business.
One of the things we're starting to see more of is landfills postponing final cover, especially at municipal solid waste landfill facilities. As the landfills continue to age, they will settle, they will shrink, as the waste consolidates over time. We've started to install temporary geosynthetic covers, which are just an exposed plastic film. That way we prevent rainwater infiltration and leachate into the landfill, which is a significant cost.
I've been working on one site that has been putting out the geosynthetic covers since 2014, and there is a variety of materials, and ballast solutions to hold the materials in place from wind uplift or gas pressure uplift. Every time we put these materials out, it seems like we uncover something new, whether there's a substantial amount of gas that's lifting the geosynthetic materials, and having to put in new subsurface gas collectors, or it’s controlling stormwater as it cascades over top of the material. And then the UV degradation over time. We've seen materials kind of almost disintegrate. … You want to come up with the best product that's going to last the longest, but we're still learning what those products are, and how to use them. It's been continual. Luckily, our client is very receptive to us trying new things. As they're providing input with us, we have that teamwork mentality of, we know we're all using these new products together, but we're learning at the same time. It's been an experience.
Waste360: What education prepared you for your current role?
John Fearrington: I would say a lot of it was onsite or in the company. I was fortunate that when I joined, I was the youngest engineer by about 20 years. I was able to learn, but it was also a little stressful. I felt like I was so far behind them for obvious reasons, they have been in the industry for 15 to 30 years.
I was fortunate to work with clients who were understanding, and who shared their experience with me. Stacey Smith and John Gardner, and the other senior engineers in our company sat down and worked with me to make sure I understood all the aspects, but it was a frightening time when I was sent down to Georgia in my first year, and given a project to try to run.
You have to be humble in that experience because you’re sitting in a room, and everyone is 25 years older than you, looking at you to make the right decisions. You have to know what you know, and know what you don't, and be able to ask the right questions. If you don't know the questions, don't be afraid—whether it's your clients, or the contractors—to get input from everybody, because we try to take a teamwork approach on some of the construction projects.
Being young and still learning, I tried to just absorb from every single person I came in contact with to make myself a better professional later on.