Landfill Manager's Notebook: What’s the Plan?

Streamlining landfill operations by working from the same plan

Ms1905 60 1

YOUR LANDFILL OPERATION is a collection of interactive processes—all working toward a common result. This requires that your entire team be working from the same plan. The good news is: Everyone at your landfill has a plan—in their heads. Unfortunately, they probably don’t all have the same plan.

We run into this all the time while conducting Comprehensive Operations Review (CORE) assessments. While onsite, we’ll ask the frontline workers some basic questions regarding how the waste is supposed to be pushed, compacted, and covered. We’ll ask where they’ll be filling next week, next month, or next wet season. We may inquire about access roads, tipping pads, drainage, and litter screen placement.

We nearly always get answers, but seldom the same ones.

That, in a nutshell, is the gist of the problem. How do you—as the manager—translate the very complex process of landfill operations, to folks who may not be experienced in reading plans? Sure, there’s a good understanding among engineers when it comes to all those contour lines and grade breaks, cross-sections, and detail sheets. But when you show those plans to your crew…not so much.

So, you roll out the plans on the hood of the pickup, your team nods their heads, points here and there—but nobody lets on that it’s really not that clear. And in the end, you’re forced to assume that they all get it. Chances are: They don’t.

Let’s step back and talk for a minute about what it is on the plans that you actually want them to understand. What is the “it” they should get?

Your plans—if done properly—should include the following:

  1. An adequately-sized tipping pad, one that will accommodate your inbound traffic without excessive wait times or unsafe crowding. We generally recommend some type of typewriter tipping pattern because it imposes structure and allows plenty of space for unloading—even during peak traffic periods.
  2. An optimized method of cell construction. There are many different configurations but again, generally, it’s hard to beat a simple pancake operation. Pancake operations set forth a cell construction process that will maximize waste compaction while minimizing cover soil usage. These are the two biggies when it comes to airspace conservation management.
  3. An efficient system of equipment utilization. You’ll spend millions to purchase your landfill equipment fleet—and many times that amount on its usage. Establishing good Operational Planning & Sequence (OPS) drawings allows machines to do more work in less time which is the name of the game in efficiency—and it’s how we see many facilities save millions of dollars annually.
  4. Making every step count in terms of working toward the ultimate filling of your landfill. This means putting soil stockpiles in the most efficient location—you’d be surprised how often soil stockpiles are in the wrong place and end up being handled multiple times. This also includes placing access roads, drainage structures, benches, landfill gas headers and other components where they belong—ultimately, as part of the landfill’s final grading plan;
  5. Constructing wet-weather tipping pads in strategic locations where they will provide adequate (filling) capacity to last through the wet season;
  6. Considering environmental conditions to minimize odors, vectors, and wind-blown litter

Ms1905 60 2These things should all be based on some serious value-engineering. Everything that goes into your OPS drawings should be optimized. That means you put numbers to every aspect to determine the most efficient and economical method. Not sure you agree that value-engineering applies to day-to-day landfill operations? Better think again.

Consider, for example, the common issue of litter control. Nearly every landfill must deal with wind-blown litter, yet it’s so common that we often accept it as part of doing business. I’ll bet your great-grandfather felt the same way about shoveling out the stable. He probably didn’t like it, but neither did he consider not doing it. Hey, everybody had a horse and buggy in those days…and doing shovel time was just part of the deal. When we get used to doing something, we no longer think about there being a better way.

It’s the same with wind-blown litter: Just because everyone else has a litter problem doesn’t mean you should too. Along those lines, our team has begun integrating wind modeling into our OPS drawings.

We recently built a 10-foot wind tunnel—it’s the real deal. Using a 3D printer, we can create a realistic scale model of any landfill's topography—generally, we focus on the topography that applies to the OPS drawings we’re creating for a client. Our goal: To minimize wind-blown litter by the strategic placement of deflection berms and fences (i.e., snowdrift fences), litter (collection) screens, etc.

Any topography can be modeled in the wind tunnel, but of course, the 3D model must be oriented in relation to the prevailing wind direction.

Alternatively, we have also begun using computer-based models to characterize how different topographic features will impact air flow. These two approaches—the animated computer model and hands-on wind tunnel—allow us to look at things from a couple of different perspectives.

So, in addition to creating a plan that minimizes litter generation, we also integrate recommendations on placement of collection screens to catch the litter that escapes. Murphy knows that even with our best wind modeling, some wind-blown litter will simply not follow the plan.

Litter screens, to be effective, must follow some basic guidelines—laws of physics if you will. They must:

  1. Be contiguous along the downwind unloading and fill area;
  2. Be butted together to eliminate gaps between fence sections;
  3. Be regularly cleaned. Plugged litter screens do not function as screens but as walls. Wind flows through a screen, but over and around walls;
  4. Overlap where necessary at points of traffic ingress/egress;
  5. Include portable litter screens to protect the active fill area, temporary litter screens (i.e., T-posts and chicken wire) to protect downwind areas, and permanent screens along the landfill perimeter.

Ms1905 61This aerial photo shows an excellent layout of portable litter screens around a landfill’s active area. Note how the entire area is protected. This is one of the most effective setups I’ve seen—ever. Kudos to the City of Santa Maria (CA) Landfill.

Your crew—especially your equipment operators—are erecting a large and complex construction project (i.e., the landfill), often with very little idea of what the “final picture” looks like. But even more problematic is the fact that many do not know where they are filling next month…or next week.

Ever try to put a big puzzle together without seeing a picture of what you are creating? Imagine if that was your job, your career, and you were only given instruction for one puzzle piece at a time. Ugh, that would drive a person crazy! It’s hard to build enthusiasm—and get folks to inject meaningful suggestions—if they don’t know what the big picture looks like.

Sure, you can tell your crew what to do…but it’s much better if you can also explain why they’re doing it.

Of course, I’m not saying that your crew needs to fully understand your landfill’s slope stability analysis, leachate production modeling, and Conditional Use Permit—but your front-line operators should have a handle on where they’ll be filling over the next couple of years, with enough detail that they can be placing soil, rubble, and other materials in strategic locations. There is indeed a balance between knowing enough to do a job well and drowning in information overload.

But how do the landfill operators and crew—many of whom may have never read an engineering drawing in their life—know what they are supposed to be building?

Well, we look to technology to help our crew connect with reality—in this case, it’s Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality (VR) is a computer-generated view of a three-dimensional image. Imagine yourself on the starship Enterprise. Scotty beams you out from the transporter room…and zap—you’re there. Everywhere you look—up, down, all around—you are in another location. With the help of your cell phone and some special goggles, VR can take you there.

Our designers—the folks who develop OPS drawings—have recently begun integrating VR. Through that process, and using a simple headset and a mobile phone, landfill equipment operators, crew, and managers can view a virtual simulation of what future phases of their landfill will look like. Rather than just being told verbally, “We are going to build the cell right over there,” they can actually see—through VR—a 3D representation of what the next cell(s) will look like. This technology can help your crew boldly go where no man or woman has gone before. Landfill VR—who would have thought?

Every aspect of landfill operation is inter-connected—it’s holistic. And in the end, your goal should be to help translate those goals to your crew. VR is simply another way to do it. And it’s pretty darn cool too.

Technology can provide a tremendous boost to your operation by helping your crew to better understand how their day-to-day work ties into the landfill’s long-term plan. Wind modeling and VR are just two examples of how to do it.

More in Landfills