Viewpoint: Creating a great landfill legacy

How to turn a landfill into a community conservation jewel and increase tax revenues.

Brian TippettsBy Brian Tippetts

A landfill may be viewed as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind operation or as something worse: a community ogre. The reality is a landfill can be a conservation jewel and a source of great value for local residents.

Modern landfills control hundreds or even 1,000s of acres. Large or small, active or closed, they can affect their communities during their operational life and long afterwards. Too often overlooked is its long-term legacy, and how its end-use will affect the community.

A landfill property, footprint and buffer, can be repurposed for a variety of uses but is best done with a solid, credible plan, which includes:

  • A clearly articulated vision;
  • An implementation schedule (The schedule can be something other than the calendar);
  • Partial implementation done immediately; and
  • A funding source.

Too few landfills have developed great end-use plans that actually will provide tangible benefits to their communities.  An end-use plan with the vague description of "open green space" or the idea that "we'll wait and figure it out later" doesn't add value.

If the property's end-use plan doesn't create long-term value or isn't credible, fears of possible poor outcomes will depress area land values and related tax revenues. Depressed property values near a landfill hurt not only those land owners, but also the rest of the taxing jurisdiction, who will see an increase in their taxes to make up for depressed property values near the landfill area.

If, on the other hand, the landfill has a great operational record and an attractive end-use plan, property values close to the landfill will benefit. Properties further away from the landfill will also benefit by seeing a collective commensurate tax offset.

A landfill property end-use plan should take a multi-use resource approach. This approach would enable protection of the landfill's environmental infrastructure while also providing for recreational opportunities. Depending on site specifics, those could include quality natural areas, hiking, birding, biking and many other activities.

Certainly, part of the landfill property might be planned for recycling operations, waste transfer and appropriate development. However, landfill owners can act in the interest of the community, now, and in the future. This can happen through permanently establishing natural areas, creating naturalized stormwater control, providing low-impact recreational opportunities and connecting to neighboring ecological and recreational areas. Such ecological restorations may take place only in landfill buffers or possibly throughout the entire site.

With a little extra planning, a landfill can be a safe and compliant operation while also providing the community with a great landfill legacy. A beneficial end-use vision for the property will create a valuable community jewel, if not today, in the future.

Your grandchildren — and taxpayers — will thank you.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Brian Tippetts is the treasurer for the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and the Director for the Solid Waste Division of Applied Ecological Services.

Discuss this Blog Entry 25

Robert L Denny (not verified)
on Mar 7, 2013

Brian this is an excellent article. I could not agree more. And if more and more of us thought this way then I suspect we could tackle one of the other issues with siting landfills....SIZE. It would be oh so much more preferable to reduce the haulage distances for each unit of waste, but currently our regulatory and public pressures are so great, officials tend to want to consolidate wastes and go through the painful process just once in a given time period or geographical area. But this is environmentally less preferable and I do hope your ideas achieve more acceptance.

Lauren (not verified)
on Mar 10, 2013

Mr. Denny, I could not agree more. With population increase, we have an increased strain on the lifetime projections for our existing facilities. I hope that the public will one day realize that all they are doing is transferring their environmental "problems" from one area to another rather than actually working to eliminate or at least reduce them.

Will Flower (not verified)
on Mar 7, 2013

Excellent points in the article. The one thing I would add is the importance of community input and public participation during all phases of the landfill lifecycle (design, operation, closure and post closure). The neighbors, community and citizens deserve a voice in determining an appropriate end-use plan for a landfill.

Rob Denny (not verified)
on Mar 7, 2013

Mr Flower's comment rings true: The one thing I would add is the importance of community input and public participation during all phases of the landfill lifecycle (design, operation, closure and post closure). I would add however that participation without inspiration often backfires (painful experiences here). Yet, successful models that inspire the imagination have real power to build creativity. A roll call of past successes, from anywhere in the world, creates possibility thinking.

Brian Tippetts (not verified)
on Mar 8, 2013

Rob~ your point is so important I am repeating it:... "participation without inspiration often backfires (painful experiences here)."

Leaders in visioning a landfil property need to inspire.

Bernie Melcher (not verified)
on Mar 7, 2013

Well said, all to offen I see closed site and think what a waste of resources

Mike McGraw (not verified)
on Mar 7, 2013

Great article. The potential value at landfills for environmental stewardship and creating a valuable community amenity is huge. As stated in the article, its all about planning and perspectives from early on in the process. Its a win-win for landfill operators and surrounding communities!

on Mar 7, 2013

Great article, Brian. We need a vision of the closed landfill at the beginning. Almost every landfill that we have closed in the past 20 years started out in the countryside, but was in the middle of development when we closed it. Developing the future use plan when the closing landfill is in the middle of a neighborhood is much more difficult than implementing a vision created decades earlier, in my opinion.

John Waweru Gakunga (not verified)
on Mar 7, 2013

Brian, yes this article is well written and summarizes the benefits there on.for the community/cities. It is real good resource and gold for that matter. Well done!

Best regards

John Gakunga

Chris La Shorne (not verified)
on Mar 7, 2013

Good examples would support your good premise. One would be several Mt Trashmores in Illinois around Chicago. ANother would be Willowhill Golf Course, while it seems a bit out of place it great reviews.

Trevan Houser (not verified)
on Mar 7, 2013

Brian - an excellent view point. For many years I have advocated landfills as a temporary use of land - it's not going to be active forever! So how much easier it would be to ask a community to allow for a temporary use of a piece of land as a landfill - with a crdible end use plan to take over after closure. With so much emphasis being placed on landfill diversion, I would expect the large waste companies to start looking at biowaste conversion technologies, fueling (CNG) stations, and of course wildlife habitat as part of landfill siting and post-closure land use plans. This would allow them to continue to receive the revenues for diverted wastes and reduce truck miles. Seems like it would ease the pain at some of those public hearings! TJH

James Thompson (not verified)
on Mar 7, 2013

Great article. I look forward to hearing more about some of the technical aspects of enhancing future land value, such as ecological measures, compaction ratios, and many others that I can't possibly think of because I am not the expert. You are.

Jeff Newell (not verified)
on Mar 8, 2013

Excellent ideas to repurpose landfills in planning stages for end- uses to benefit the communties. Cover thickness can be increased to allow vegetative growth to not impact synthetic liner systems. The company that I work for has installed solar panel systems on former structural fills and landfills. Keep the creative ideas coming so that community landfills become user friendly verses ogres.

Jason Dremsa (not verified)
on Mar 9, 2013

These discussions are remarkably meaningful. One suggestion is to find an eco-contractor with the right technical landfill experience to establish the best possible native vegetation most efficiently to maximize benefits. This is key (and sometimes most difficult) in carrying out the legacy and quickly gaining support to do the same on all dumps. Thank you.

Bob Wallace WIH Resource Group (not verified)
on Mar 9, 2013

Good points in the article, however the one thing we see frequently with some public agencies is they are not properly funding for landfill closure and post closure costs and instead stealing from themselves and revenue that was earned via landfill tip fees (gate fees) gets transferred from the solid waste enterprise to the jurisdiction's general fund and the money is utilized elsewhere in the system leaving nothing left for adequately closing and post closure maintenance, let alone having additional funds for an end-use park or something worthy for the public's use once the landfill's useful life has been exhausted.

JJ Stockton (not verified)
on Mar 11, 2013

Brian, this is a well thought out article and reveals your commitment and integrity to society and our shared world. I am glad you using your influence for positive change. JJ

Bruce J. Parker (not verified)
on Mar 11, 2013

Brian, I am in full agreement with all of the prior comments and especially with your very readable and foundational article on repurposing landfills. To get some momentum behind this topic, it would be helpful if organizations such as the National Association of Counties (NACO), National League of Cities (NLC), the US Conference of Mayors (USCM) and similar_groups included this topic in their conferences and publications.

Mike Sullivan (not verified)
on Mar 18, 2013

An interesting and thought provoking article, thanks for writing it! In Ontario landfills are called "Lulu's" (locally unwanted land uses), as their developers are interested principally in the landfill operation, not the end use. Many landfills are transformed into ski hills or public parks once they are closed, which is another 'legacy' type project you note.

I like and appreciate the vision aspect that was the focus of the article. In Ontario, much focus is placed on the 'after use' of the facility. Your point is well noted that more planning effort should be placed on the legacy component. Effective public engagement would help determine what those affected want.

Paula Leier-Engelhardt (not verified)
on Mar 18, 2013

It is almost a luxury to be able to permit a greenfield site where you might have an opportunity to implement future value-added features. My experience has been similar to Bob’s – little thought and money goes into post-closure land use. By all means, we need to tout the positive uses of green space and buffer areas. But shouldn’t we also rethink what the landfill is, and the on-going uses? Is this also where the recycling, waste transfer, and composting (both yard waste and biosolids) facilities could be located? And, can we rethink the idea of final closure? That is, we manage a landfill so that the waste is decomposed as efficiently as possible (using the gas/energy in the process) so that a given amount of airspace is continually being used for “disposal”, rather than continually creating another area where waste is placed and can never be disturbed? Certainly there will be residue generated that will need to be properly disposed, and yes, this would require significant changes in regulations, engineering, and construction methods, as well as a huge effort in public education and buy-in. But couldn’t a facility show it is being a good neighbor by not only developing a great end use plan, but also showing it is using a property in the most effective way possible?

Matt Holman (not verified)
on Mar 20, 2013

Great insights in a soon to be pressing topic for everyone.

From your article, it seems like changing public perception should be step one. Just as you mentioned, clearly articulated visions need to be presented. The possibilities for repurposing landfills are quite intriguing.

I imagine a reconfigured entertainment or recreation environment tailored to each landfill. Rather than just being another park or "green space", landfills could adapt to their neighborhood's sub-cultures and become unique focal points of towns.

on Mar 22, 2013

Brian, your suggestion of being mindful in design for end use ala the mantra "begin with the end in mind" is most meaningful. Many of the comments you have received on this post suggest that SWANA as an organisation and representative cross-section of this online community are thinking about this. Beyond that, where are the best mainstream forums in thinking about these things - regional planning, APWA, associations of counties?

on Mar 25, 2013

Todd, I think Bruce Parker's comments above are right on the mark. Perhaps American Planning Association (APA) may also have some influence with key decision makers. I don’t want to disparage anyone, but the truth is some folks don’t get it or some may think the work of creating a good legacy is contrary to their short term goals.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 11, 2013

Interesting article and thoughts.....but I still feel the landfills should be converted to electricity and fuel. The emptied landfill can then become a site for a number of different productive uses.

We are working with a plant developer who has used several different technologies in plants he has built and ones that are in planning, depending on the in-take and the by-products needed by the community.

on May 14, 2013

Who are you kidding? Value NOT! Liability YES!
Landfills have a negative long term value since EVERY one will leak and the operators and their profit will be gone leaving the residents and governments to suffer the health, environmental and financial consequences of the pollution released.

Remember, we are not talking years or even decades. We are talking geologic time of centuries, millennium or even epochs.

EVERY landfill WILL leak and pollute. So as Cosby's Noah said "Who will clean up this mess?" and who will die from exposure?

Alma Resendiz (not verified)
on Jun 4, 2013

You have cleared a question that has been in my head since I started working at the landfill.. What happens when it fills up? I like how having a plan can change tax payers mind about paying when they bring trash, if they are informed that is. I can now say "well when we fill up the landfill we will turn it into something to give back to the community!"

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