The Evolution of Landfills in the Circular Economy


Recap of working session discussing emerging technologies for waste management during 2017 Circular Economy Summit.

I had the opportunity to experience attending the 2017 Circular Economy Summit hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. I was particularly interested in learning how cities were tackling the issue of the waste generated and luckily Stephen Simmons, Senior Vice President at Gershman, Brickner & Bratton (GBB), Inc. along with David McConnell, Vice President of Business Development, at Enerkem were slotted to hold a working session on how cities were applying emerging technologies for waste management.

Simmons introduced the Eco-park and Sustainable business park models that Prince William County, Virginia and Kent County, Michigan were adopting in order to tackle the challenge of turning buried waste into a resource that benefits their respective communities. Prince William County’s efforts in green energy, education, and research to unlock economic opportunity for their community resulted in an E4 rating – the only active landfill to achieve the highest rating for solid waste infrastructure in Virginia.   

Some of the Prince William County site highlights include:

  • Residents generate and the County collects 950 tons of waste per day, 70% of which benefits the community in the form of energy for facilities, compost and mulch, as well as recovered valuable materials through recycling facilities.
  • A 6.8 MegaWatt (MW) landfill gas-to-energy plant powers County facilities such as fleet garages, greenhouses, animal shelters, and fuel for vehicles.
  • A solar project currently generating over 1.3MW of energy and up to 10MW output planned for the future when the landfill is fully built.
  • GBB, Inc. helped them rethink their organics and food waste by acquiring an onsite anaerobic digesting facility that turns the material into compost for onsite organic farms and for use in surrounding agricultural lands.

Simmons related a few requirements for success in sustainable waste management.  Foremost is leadership with a vision bold enough to imagine “land without a landfill.” This led Kent County to have an interest in “not just turning waste into energy or recovering energy value,” as “…the consumer today wants more than just the energy value, they want to know that it’s going back to a usable product.”

“Some of the new technology is not necessarily cheap, and the challenge is communicating to businesses, homeowners and (public utility) ratepayers in a way they can relate.”

One significant point Simmons made during the discussion was that in “every $3 dollars spent in the traditional waste management process, $2 dollars are spent in the truck, picking up [the waste] and bringing it to the plant, that’s where the money is really spent” he continued, “the difference between putting in a landfill and getting it [to Prince William County] where 80% [is recycled] is about $10 dollars per person per year in that County.”

Although the cost of becoming a sustainable city or county may seem steep in the short term, the costs are well worth it if you take into consideration the long-term benefits.

Sustainable waste management can produce an economic boon for communities. McConnell echoed Simmons and shared with the audience Enerkem’s journey in creating technologies that generate energy, products and economic benefits from municipal waste. Simmons highlighted an independent economic impact study by the University of Minnesota. The study found that the following are benefits of creating a sustainable waste management alternative to landfills:

  • $200 million construction project investment (proposed cost of a sustainable waste management facility)
  • Construction impacts
  • Over 700 building and trades jobs
  • Annual operations impacts
  • 100+ direct permanent high-quality jobs
  • 100+ indirect effects jobs
  • 70 induced effect jobs
  • Total annual economic impact on the County $128 million of recurring annual income.

Simmons and McConnell lauded the efforts of cities such as Phoenix and Austin in being leaders in rethinking waste as a resource for their communities.

[Editor's Note: For more information on topics covered during the 2017 Circular Economy Summit, visit our website].