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Dust and odor are unavoidable in waste and recycling processes. However, to protect public health and answer the call for environmental justice, these nuisances must be identified and effectively managed for the long-term success of any waste and recycling operation.

Odor is a top complaint when a material processing facility or landfill applies for expansion or begins the process of siting and permitting a new facility. While odor and dust control often are thought to be separate issues, these two challenges should be addressed together from the perspective of managing nuisances related to public health and the environment and maintaining good community relations.

Causes of dust and odor

Simply put, material handling creates dust, and odors are a direct result of the materials accepted at any facility.

The composition of the materials and the method of collection (source-separated or commingled) also contribute to the creation of dust and odors. Source-separated materials need less handling once they arrive at a facility from their point of generation. Commingled or single-stream collection requires more handling and, as a result, more dust is created. Odors also could result depending on the mix of materials.

Waste generators, whether residential, commercial, industrial or institutional, use specific facilities for processing and disposal, which dictates the types of materials and volumes to be delivered to each facility.

Unloading materials onto tipping floors and moving materials from one place to another create dust, which is more problematic depending on the moisture content and air conditions.

Landfills follow a different model but nevertheless create dust and odor concerns for residents in the communities where they are located. Landfills have different odors, from leachate, gas collection systems and raw trash at the working face, but they are not contained within a structure to prevent their migration.

Some states or cities ban organic materials from landfills and other facilities to prevent the production of methane odors associated with anaerobic decomposition, and composting is limited in some areas because of the putrid odors created during aerobic decomposition.

Collection trucks with compacting equipment increase route efficiencies, but compacted waste and decreased oxygen speed up decomposition. When organic materials are unloaded, they release odors, making them an “odor-generating source.” Odor-generating sources can include buildings, covered areas, open spaces and any other locations where materials are stored that could release odor.

Permitting and air quality

Air quality often requires compliance with environmental and safety regulations. When new facilities are built, some states require air permits, especially if the facilities produce emissions.

Dust and odor can create health problems. The human nose is more likely to sense strong odors or gas causing the odor, regardless of whether it is harmful, and higher concentrations of dust pose a greater probability for inhalation.

Maintaining facility and operating permits is challenging even on the best days. A facility with a history of poor management or lack of response to public nuisances could struggle to secure permits for expansion or for new sites.

Many materials create dust and odor, such as glass, wood, cardboard, organic and inorganic materials. Staying within the limits of a permit for acceptable materials at any given facility is imperative to maintain minimal levels of odors and dust.

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Environmental justice

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Furthermore, the EPA recognizes that environmental justice will be achieved when everyone has the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.

Quality of life is affected when operating issues are not identified and resolved in a timely manner, and dust and odors are two issues the public tends to be directly affected by when waste processing and disposal facilities are considered. Existing operations have a responsibility to manage these intrusions in the best ways possible. Facility operators should communicate with members of the local community and gauge their concerns. They also should take the opportunity to communicate the steps being taken to encourage dust and odor control to lead the charge against challenges associated with environmental justice.

“Not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, a movement characterized by residents’ opposition to proposed developments in their area or their support for strict land-use regulations, is a real response to applications for the expansion or construction of a waste management facility based on the operator’s current and past operating procedures.

Identifying sources of dust and odors, finding resolutions and documenting the improvements in remedying problems and preventing future issues prove positive for community engagement.

Consistent processing, continuous movement of materials and an ongoing odor management plan maintain quality of life for residents in the surrounding areas. Ongoing communication, including notifying neighbors when dust and/or odors are creating problems and giving them potential timelines for resolution, is valuable. When timelines are defined, facility operators must meet those goals to gain confidence from local community leaders and residents.


Planning and design are required for the expansion and/or construction of existing and new facilities. Proper design is imperative as a first line of defense against these nuisance issues at waste processing and disposal facilities.

Being mindful of wind direction is important in determining how to orient the building. High-speed roll-up doors can be installed to contain dust and odors within the building, if needed. Overhead misting systems can be installed to provide solutions for managing dust and odor within an enclosed facility. Filter systems made to collect dust can be fitted with activated carbon filters that help control odors, vapors, gases and solid particulates.

Perimeter chain-link fencing with added screening material prevents wind-blown debris from scattering beyond the property boundaries. Litter near a facility is a first impression that leads to further perception of poorly run operations. Assigning daily litter patrol at the perimeter fencing and beyond is a good first impression that your operation is committed to being a positive part of the community.

Understanding the importance of minimizing the volume of leachate coupled with effective containment for runoff that is created is not only a permit requirement but also a step toward reducing odors. On-site containment and pretreatment prior to liquids leaving the site provide cleaner discharge. Paved surfaces contribute to stormwater runoff but reduce dust considerably.

Operational responsibilities

Minimizing dust and odors not only protects health and safety but improves the workplace and overall perception of a waste management facility. Dust and odor create building maintenance issues, and dust can accelerate wear on the equipment used to move and compact waste. When employees work in an environment with minimal dust and odors, satisfaction and productivity improve.

Landfill roads often are constructed of dirt and rock and create mud. When trucks exit a facility, mud on their tires is carried to the main roadway, creating dust. On sites with unpaved roads, misting the roads settles the dust without creating mud. Street sweeping equipment is an important tool for landfills to use regularly to clear local roads of dust and dirt.

Enclosed facilities often can contain dirt and mud by installing paved roadways in and around processing facilities.

Protecting the environment by reducing dust and off-site odors requires continuous monitoring, quick response when issues arise and full transparency to the public.

Becky Caldwell is president of Caldwell Environmental Solutions LLC in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact her at becky@everythingsolidwaste.com.