Landfills are filled to the brim with all sorts of stuff no one wants anymore—toys, Christmas wreaths, plastic doodads from IKEA, food scraps, and even toilets. Even when landfills are properly maintained and abide by regulations, they can still generate stomach-turning smells. In fact, one of the recent core challenges for waste management facilities has been the battle against increasingly foul odors generated by our trash. Given that urban areas are always expanding, pushing development even further into remote areas, the likelihood of living next door to a landfill increases all the time. And herein lies the problem: people and foul odors don’t get along.
There are plenty of other industrial sites, such as wastewater treatment plants and asphalt production companies, that also face odor issues, but landfills seem to have the greatest problems in this department. Because these facilities manage trash by forming massive piles, variables like humidity, moisture, wind, and temperature contribute greatly to the smell. And because landfills encompass many acres of land and are constantly growing, they are quickly becoming more than just eyesores.
Erratic winds and blustery weather can spread odors to nearby neighborhoods and commercial areas, creating an unpleasant problem. As a landfill rises higher and higher as the trash piles up, variable wind patterns can make the smell difficult to control. If neighboring houses sit at a lower elevation in a valley, the foul smell can travel down and become trapped in the area. Predictably, this only exacerbates the problem and can trigger complaints from irate residents.
Food waste is particularly problematic, because of its rate of decomposition and the odor-generating bacteria it attracts. In the days when organic matter and general trash were always combined, the problem was not as pervasive. The smell was more diluted by the presence of inorganic, solid matter. But now, with the increased emphasis on separate disposal streams, the smell of rotting food has intensified at many waste disposal sites. If it happens to rain for an extended period of time, the extra moisture can break the food down faster and contribute to a more pungent smell that’s often described as “sweetly rotten.” Hot weather can also increase the rate of decomposition and thus the smell. Add a strong wind to that equation, and what results is a lot of irritated neighbors.
So, what are some solutions? Even though US landfill operators must abide by many federal and state regulations, odors aren’t always addressed by these rules, leading to a demand for a more comprehensive approach. But many site managers complain about the impossibility of completely controlling weather and temperature variables, making the problem pesky indeed. Given the foul extent of what can end up in a landfill, you never know when an overpowering odor is going to waft out. Some people advocate targeting what creates the most odors and finding new management systems. For example, certain types of waste could be pretreated to minimize the smell before it is put in a landfill.
Regardless of what waste management companies and landfill operators decide, one thing is clear: the most successful landfills of the future will be ones that find ways to minimize odors. Putting an effective odor control policy in place is rapidly becoming mandatory for anyone in the business. Of course, odor control requires two things that are usually in short supply—time and money. This extra step in management would require additional work, which would have to be covered by paying more employees or taking more time, and both solutions would be taxing on the landfill operator and waste management company. This doesn’t even include the additional equipment and storage a new approach might entail.
One potential solution has emerged from those who design the cover material that is layered over landfill waste as a standard industry practice. Many landfills use soil as a cover, but alternative materials may be able to contain odors more effectively. Some of these covers are foam-like and non-hardening, as well as able to last for long periods of time. Operators can spray the foam on in bulk with a hose, smothering the waste and any offensive smells.
At the moment, it appears many facilities are not using the most current odor mitigation systems, and they still have much work to do before they will be able to fully contain any smells. Regardless of the headache and expense involved, there are three steps involved in addressing landfill odors. The source of the smell needs to be identified and monitored at the facility, and treatment of some kind needs to occur before the debris is left for decomposition. Wind should also be monitored to better predict where (and when) the odor will travel. Certain instruments can also measure odor concentrations within the landfill, indicating the most offensive areas. Once these variables are addressed, workers can target certain parts of the site with extra effort and hopefully begin to address the problem.