"Why do landfills smell?": A guide for environmental managers

Despite advances in technology, landfill odour issues remain a tough challenge for environmental managers.

But what about if they could identify the root cause?


8 min

Landfill sites are essential components of waste management in our communities, but they come with their own set of challenges, among which odour control stands out significantly. The production of unpleasant smells is a natural consequence of waste decomposition, primarily due to the breakdown of organic material by bacteria under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions.  

This process releases a combination of gases, including methane, carbon dioxide, and a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are often the main contributors to the notorious odours associated with landfills  

Tackling odour issues is challenging. It is difficult because it involves a complex interplay between quantitative sciences and people’s perceptions. Despite advances in technology and understanding, landfill odour issues will remain a challenge for a very long time. For environmental managers, understanding the composition and sources of these odours is the first step towards effective odour management strategies. 

Common strategies for landfill odour control today  

Identifying and mitigating the sources of landfill odours require a multifaceted approach. First and foremost, regular monitoring of landfill gas emissions is a crucial first step. This is normally achieved through the installation of landfill gas collection systems that not only help in capturing the gases for potential energy use but also significantly reduce the emission of odorous compounds into the atmosphere.  

Identifying the source of odour and landfill gas emissions across large areas can be difficult with static data.

However, small sensor technology has developed over the past few decades and has now become a viable part of the odour management mix. While they don't have particularly high accuracy, their great advantage is in providing far more data that can fill in a lot of the very large blanks spaces that have existed in the odour management problem.

Additionally, covering waste with soil or specialised membranes can minimise the exposure of decomposing waste to air, thus reducing odour generation. Another effective strategy involves the use of biofilters, which treat the collected gases by passing them through a medium inhabited by microorganisms that digest the odorous compounds.

How does odour monitoring data can help inform decision-making?

Environmental managers must also consider the impact of weather conditions on odour dispersion and employ strategic planning to counteract these effects. Odour is something that we can’t see and has always been difficult and expensive to measure. This has been a barrier to effective management efforts in many cases.

Regular monitoring of landfill odours is essential not only for identifying the sources of odour emissions but also for tracking the effectiveness of implemented management strategies. Advanced technologies such as remote sensors and drones can provide real-time data on odour emissions, helping environmental managers make informed decisions.

These tools can also be used to identify areas with a higher concentration of odorous gases, allowing for targeted mitigation efforts. Furthermore, long-term monitoring of odours can provide valuable insights into seasonal variations and changing weather patterns that may impact odour management.

Technology is now paving the way for environmental managers to obtain situational awareness of their sites to identify problematic sources of landfill gas and odours in real-time.

In addition to monitoring, data analysis is also crucial in making informed decisions about odour control measures. By analysing the composition and source of landfill gasses, environmental managers can identify the most significant contributors to odours and develop effective mitigation strategies accordingly. This data can also be used in conjunction with odour complaint reports from the community to pinpoint specific areas or processes that require further attention.

What about community engagement around landfill odour control?

Another key factor has been the fact that much of the ‘measurement’ of an odour problem is by people in a neighbouring community, who might complain when it gets bad. Responding to landfill odour complaints is notoriously difficult. As a result, many odour problems are chronic, and communities become hostile about it.

Transparent community engagement is another critical component of effective odour management at landfill sites. Transparent communication with residents about the measures being taken to address odour concerns can foster a cooperative relationship. This involves regularly updating the community on the progress of odour mitigation efforts and the results of air quality monitoring.

Furthermore, providing a channel for residents to report odour complaints ensures that environmental managers can quickly identify and address new or escalating odour issues. By incorporating community feedback into the odour management strategy, landfill operators can not only improve the efficiency of their efforts but also build trust and goodwill with the surrounding population.

If a community member lodges a complaint, automated collection and defensible data can help landfills refute or confirm responsibility for the odour incident.

Can data help future proof landfill design for better odour control?

Landfill design plays a crucial role in managing odours. Modern landfills are designed with several layers of lining materials, including clay and synthetic liners, to prevent leachate from contaminating the surrounding soil and groundwater. These liners also help trap odorous gases, reducing their migration into the atmosphere. Additionally, proper compaction of waste can inhibit air flow and promote anaerobic conditions that minimize odour generation. Regular maintenance of landfill covers is also essential in preventing leakages and controlling odour emissions.

Effective landfill odour control requires a comprehensive approach that involves regular monitoring, strategic planning, community engagement, and innovative technologies. By understanding the sources of odours, utilising advanced tools for data collection and analysis, and improving landfill design, environmental managers can effectively mitigate odour issues and ensure a healthier environment for everyone.

It’s essential to keep up with the latest advancements in odour management techniques to effectively tackle this ongoing challenge for landfill operators. With proper measures and community involvement, we can work towards minimising the impact of landfills on our surroundings and continue to find sustainable solutions for waste management.

Introducing Envirosuite software to support targeted landfill odour control

Envirosuite offers advanced software solutions designed specifically for environmental management, including landfill odour control. Our Omnis platform combines real-time data monitoring, predictive modelling, and community engagement features to provide a comprehensive approach to managing odours at landfill sites.

Omnis can be implemented with site-specific odour monitoring networks for environmental managers to instantly understand their current environmental performance with advanced visualisation of their monitoring network and how local weather is impacting it.

The likely source of air quality and odour incidents can be indicated in real-time, as well as an early warning system of risk events that may impact the surrounding community by providing a visual representation of current and historical monitoring data and can be used to identify emission sources and source contributions to measured values at a monitoring site.

Get in touch today to find out more.