Landfill Engineer

Landfill engineers are specialized engineers who plan, design, and construct landfill sites. In addition to designing site infrastructure, they may be involved in day-to-day site operations, including managing and utilizing landfill gases and leachates and dealing with public complaints. They may also be involved in projects to upgrade and expand existing sites or closing sites that are full. Landfill engineers interact with the many stakeholders involved in landfill projects, including regulators, the public, businesses, neighbours, and staff.

At a Glance

Imagine you are crouching over a smelly pit of garbage, with seagulls circling the trash and bulldozers moving piles behind you. You are a landfill engineer and you are here talking to the city's sanitation department about a new project to deal with the problem of growing garbage production and too little space to put it. The city isn't interested in building another dump, which is just an open hole, but instead has asked you to design a landfill. It will be your job to design a landfill facility at this location that can be isolated from the surrounding air, soil, and groundwater, thereby protecting the environment while holding the city's trash for decades to come.

As a landfill engineer, you must factor a number of considerations into your design. You have already been involved in the project for more than a year, working with hydrogeologists, city planners, biologists, and other scientists and engineers, conducting an environmental assessment of the proposed site. Once the necessary studies have been completed and proper approvals granted, you and your team decide what kind of liner system to use to keep waste from coming into contact with the soil and to keep leachate, liquids that have come in contact with the waste, from seeping into the groundwater.

In this case, you will use a double liner system: one-liner layer will be compacted clay and the other will be a plastic-like geosynthetic liner. Above the liners, you will build a leachate collection system that will minimize the leachate levels within the waste by draining or pumping it out of the site for treatment. Next, you will design a storm water drainage system to keep rain and other moisture out of the landfill to reduce the amount of leachate generated. The storm water drainage system will consist of a system of ditches that will collect and drain water away from the site. You will also have to consider whether to collect landfill gases produced by the breakdown of garbage. The landfill will produce carbon dioxide and methane, both of which are greenhouse gases.

On top of that, methane is explosive, so safeguards must be put in place to minimize the potential for explosions or landfill fires. You might build a flare to burn off the methane or collect it for use in generating power for the city. Finally, you must also consider public health concerns and operational constraints in your design, including noise, dust, odour, litter, traffic, and visual impacts. It's a complicated process, but your design will produce a safe and effective way of storing the city's waste.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a landfill engineer:

  • Assess geological and hydrogeological settings for potential facilities.
  • Evaluate construction materials and design choices for projects, including specifications for protection, containment, collection, and removal systems.
  • Prepare cost estimates for projects.
  • Conduct risk assessments for different sites and designs.
  • Prepare reports and make presentations to stakeholders.
  • Prepare requests for proposals, evaluate proposals, and award contracts.
  • Supervise and interact with on-site staff and provide instructions.
  • Communicate with clients and liaise with contractors, landfill neighbours, and the public.
  • Research appropriate legislation and guidelines governing landfill sites, construction, operation, maintenance, monitoring, closure, and rehabilitation.

Work Environment

In the office:

  • Doing paperwork, analyzing data, and preparing reports
  • Drafting plans and designs
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, stakeholders, landfill operators, and government departments, and presenting assessment findings and designs to clients
  • Making presentations to the public and review agencies
  • Researching new technology and advancements in landfill construction, and consulting with other engineers and professionals

In the field:

  • Touring and inspecting sites during construction and operation, collecting samples, and evaluating soil and water quality data and landfill gases
  • Communicating with operators and technicians
  • Ensuring compliance with appropriate regulations
  • Evaluating the efficiency of monitoring programs

Where to Work

There are a number of places landfill engineers can find employment. They include:

  • Engineering and environmental consulting firms
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Waste management companies

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as a landfill engineer, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Math
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Calculus
  • English
  • Biology

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a landfill engineer is a university undergraduate degree. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a landfill engineer, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Civil Engineering
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Geological Engineering

In order to work as a landfill engineer, you must be registered and licensed as a Professional Engineer with your provincial association. The requirements for professional status vary among provinces.

Role Models

James Hollingsworth

James Hollingsworth was a young mechanical engineer looking for work when a friend told him about a job opening with a solid waste management company. "They were looking for someone who was proficient in AutoCAD, but who was also an engineer so they could progress that person into a design role.” At the time, James remembers, "I kind of liked the idea of going into solid waste because I figured people were always getting rid of their trash.” Today, James is a solid waste engineer working with an Ontario solid waste management consulting firm.

Almost 95 percent of his time is spent at his desk, sketching landfill designs, developing new business proposals, or advising other engineers. "This job is a good mixture of different tasks and waste management issues.” Another component of his job is consulting and working directly with clients. "I enjoy being able to talk and interact with other people involved in the waste industry, whether that’s local municipalities or professionals from other industry sectors.” Much of James’s work is proactive instead of reactive. This means he’s involved in the ongoing monitoring of rural and urban landfills. "We’ll see something that’s coming up in the monitoring, and we’ll say "If we keep going this way, there’s only X number of years until we have a problem.’”

James adds that it is his job to bring the problem to the attention of municipal officials. "I tell them "Here are some solutions…let’s spend the money now to keep you from spending a lot more money on clean-up later.’” Sometimes James has to be creative in the solutions he offers residents who are upset about a landfill in their area. With many landfills being constructed in rural areas, residents are often worried about their well water being polluted. "We try to show them the science behind the construction and operation of the landfill…Sometimes it’s even as simple as saying, we’re going to come and test your groundwater every year.” James points out that what people don’t realize is that today’s landfill projects have created a safer, more environmentally sound way to dispose of waste. "We are trying to minimize the impact by placing the waste into a properly designed landfill site, rather than just another dump.”

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