The Dane County Landfill is innovative, cutting-edge and running out of space. As local experts work to strategize what comes next, are the rest of us doing all we can do to take personal responsibility for what we throw away?

No Time to Waste

The Dane County Landfill is innovative, cutting-edge and running out of space.

Madison Magazine cover story, May 2020

It doesn’t stink — not really. There’s just the eggy smell of sulfur hovering in a mild breeze. I’m standing with director John Welch atop the Dane County Landfill, which at 110-feet is the height of an 11-story building. Beneath our feet, all of Dane County’s garbage is pressed into layers. Far from the massive, garbage-filled hole of my imaginings, this terrain is remarkably flat, dark as dirt and groomed like freshly raked mulch. Prairie grasses shiver on the horizon. Screeching seagulls carve the cloudless sky. A compactor rolls slowly by like a tank, only adding to the strange sensation that we’re walking on some other planet. I take one squishy step forward, then another. There’s so much more beneath the surface, in so many ways.

“ ‘Dump’ is a four-letter word to us,” says Welch, director of Dane County Department of Waste & Renewables and a University of Wisconsin–Madison civil and environmental engineer with 13 years of experience in the field. This is not a dump, he explains, but a highly engineered sanitary landfill with a complex liner system and stringent environmental control monitoring systems. This landfill is considered to be one of the most innovative in the nation, which captures 1,800 cubic feet of gases per minute and converts them into valuable renewable energy. Even the compactor rolling past is a nearly $1 million machine with GPS that measures vertical movement so the operator can find any pockets that could be further compressed. That’s because space is at a premium, and the landfill is running out of it.

This article appeared in the May 2020 print issue of Madison Magazine. Continue reading at

—Maggie Ginsberg is an award-winning freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin

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