Trash is embedded in the ground as people’s feet can be seen behind it.
Trash lays on the ground mixed with dirt and rocks at the G and P Landfill in Milford County as people discuss landfills. Photo by Dulce Garcia/CoJMC.

By Jolie Peal, Alize Kroells, Dulce Garcia and Nate Thomas

OMAHA – Nestled next to Maple Street in central Omaha, Hefflinger Dog Park stretches across 7 acres. On most weekend afternoons, there are dogs running and playing. 

Riley Smith, a local pet owner, said the trees, rolling hills and location make it a go-to spot for pups and their owners.

“Your dog can make new friends here,” Smith said. “It’s a great gathering place, which is very contrary to what you would associate a landfill and gathering people with.” 

Mud Cone scaled - Nebraskans’ trash travels from the curb to landfills and eventually dog parks, but who's managing it?
A dog runs around at Hefflinger Dog Park in Omaha. On the front side of the fence sits a cone, stuck in mud and dirty water. Photo by Dulce Garcia/CoJMC.

Hefflinger Dog Park was the Douglas County landfill from 1967 to 1973. When the park was a landfill, there were no regulations on the waste and how it was disposed of. In 1965, Congress passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act that emphasized a more efficient disposal system. More than a decade later in 1976, Congress passed another law with stronger regulations. 

These regulations have turned landfills from holes filled with trash into technical facilities. In Nebraska, residential trash usually ends up in a nearby landfill, and it’s the job of state regulators and landfill operators to make sure the environment is protected during the decades that it could be in operation and even after it’s closed down. The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, also known as DEE, regulates landfills.

Daniel LeMaistre, the DEE solid waste permit supervisor, said modern landfills are more intricate than they were 30 years ago. Landfill operators run tests for gases such as methane, must pass inspections and need to keep permits up to date. In Nebraska, there are 23 municipal solid waste landfills

“Modern landfills are highly technical, highly designed pieces of technology, essentially, that we use to safeguard the public,” LeMaistre said. 

In 2016, Nebraska landfills generated over $706 million and more than 4,000 jobs, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association. Nationally, the amount of waste generated in 2018 was 292.4 million tons, which is equal to over 58,000 elephants that weigh 5 tons each, according to the EPA.

Trash disposal doesn’t start at the landfill, though. It starts outside of a house or business. 

All across Nebraska, waste collection companies rumble down residential streets to collect trash. Some start as early as midnight. Husker Refuse is one of many trash collection companies in Lincoln.

manontruck scaled - Nebraskans’ trash travels from the curb to landfills and eventually dog parks, but who's managing it?
Mat Gehle, a former Husker Refuse employee, holds on to the back of the garbage truck as it moves from house to house. Gehle worked in recycling and trash for 10 years. Photo by Jolie Peal/CoJMC.

Starting daily at 6 a.m., Husker Refuse workers navigate residential streets in massive garbage trucks. Tavis Holcomb, the operations manager for Husker Refuse, said they wake up before most of the city.

Some customers don’t think about where the trash goes after they put it out. 

“It’s like out of sight, out of mind,” Holcomb said. “All you do is put it to the curb and then you don’t have to think about it anymore.”

All that residential trash then heads to the landfill. 

Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln environmental engineering professor,  said landfills are built from the ground up with many layers. Each layer has a purpose, from keeping the trash down to collecting various gases and liquids.

“So you can think of a landfill as kind of like a big bathtub that has a bottom liner that liquids and gases can’t pass through,” Bartelt-Hunt said. “The difference is the landfill is not open at the top once you put the waste, and then it has a cover.”

Bartelt-Hunt explained that the liquid landfills produce is leachate. A collection system made of a compacted clay and strong plastic material keeps leachate from entering the ground and contaminating groundwater, and pipes help transfer the leachate off the liner. Then, there are layers and layers of waste, with daily liners in between to keep the trash confined day-to-day. When it’s time to close the landfill, a liner is placed on top with gas collection wells to collect methane gas that emits from the trash. State regulations mandate inspections to ensure cleanliness of the site as well as safe gas and water contamination levels.

Almost every active Nebraska landfill has fallen out of compliance or had issues noted in DEE documents in the last three years, including failing to control litter, not having the proper end-of-day covering, methane emission violations and groundwater contamination issues.

Erik Waiss, environmental assistance coordinator for the DEE waste section, said the DEE is there to help landfills stay in compliance.

“It’s mostly helping them maintain compliance,” Waiss said. “It’s not a punishment system.”

At the end of a landfill’s life, there are limited options. Depending on the landfill, it might convert to a transfer station like in Sarpy County, or it could revert back to the community to become softball fields, solar panels or a dog park.

“So most of the time an old landfill just looks like a really, really bad golf course,” Waiss said. “If you can find something to put up there that is not invasive, that doesn’t dig down into the landfill, we’re probably going to approve that.”

Park Signs scaled - Nebraskans’ trash travels from the curb to landfills and eventually dog parks, but who's managing it?
At Hefflinger Dog Park in Omaha, there are signs designating where dog waste and trash should be disposed of, as well as containers with unused dog waste bags if pet owners need them. Photo by Dulce Garcia/CoJMC.

Some closed landfills can become something else such as a dog park or softball field. Hefflinger Dog Park is just one example of a landfill reverting back to the community. 

Abigail Matherly, an Omaha resident, said she knew the park had been a landfill before, and she has brought her dogs for about a year to enjoy the landfill-turned-park. 

“I’m happy that it’s a dog park,” Matherly said. “I think it’s better than a landfill.”