Bringing Life to Landfills in Mount Vernon

Bringing Life to Landfills in Mount Vernon

The word “landfill” instantly conjures up mental images of smelly trash, jumbles of junk and 

Some of the beehives maintained by George Mason University at the Lorton I-95 landfill in partnership with Fairfax County.

garbage trucks crawling into the dump.  Espousing a “Making Trash Bloom” philosophy, Sustainability Matters is out to upgrade this classic landfill image and to transform these dump sites into vibrant habitats that support native insects, birds and other wildlife.  Their goal is to replace traditional turf with plants that attract pollinators to an area that otherwise would be an ecologically dead space.  Historically, most landfills are covered with non-native turf grasses and are basically wastelands in terms of environmental quality, ecologists contend.

    On October 27, Sustainability Matters and Fairfax County officials will hold a ribbon-cutting on a new pollinator habitat project at the county’s I-66 Landfill and Transfer Station on West Ox Road.  Volunteers will hand plant seeds on just under an acre and plant almost another acre in the spring.  “This is land that cannot be used for anything else, like buildings or growing crops,” says Sari Carp, Sustainability Matters founder and Executive Director. “And in Fairfax where there is so much development, pollinators, insects and wildlife are in desperate need of habitat so this is a chance to turn something that is essentially a hill of trash into a positive for the environment.”

    Over one million people take trash to the I-66 landfill every year, so the project is also “a golden chance to reach non-traditional conservation audiences, like people who never go to an environmental center or wildlife refuge,” says Carp.  Another 12 million who drive by will see interpretative signage, she adds.

Eric Forbes agrees.  “We see the new meadow as a show piece of nature that will be visible as our residents drop off their recycling and food scraps.  Hopefully, visitors will see the meadow as something they can plant in their own yards or neighborhoods.” Forbes is the Deputy Director for the county’s solid waste management program.

    The I-66 landfill project is number three for the organization. On October 16, 50 volunteers hand seeded three plots at the Rappahannock County landfill near Warrenton.  The group’s flagship project is at Virginia’s Shenandoah County landfill, started in 2019. 

Why Make Landfills Bloom?

    Today’s landfills are engineered facilities built to bury and dispose of residential and commercial solid waste.  Sites must meet certain legal design, operation and closure requirements and are regulated in part to protect natural resources from leaking contaminants like heavy metals, toxic chemicals and methane emissions. Sustainability Matters plants on what are called “closed” landfills, sites no longer accepting trash.  

Landfill managers typically cap closed landfills with clay and plastic topped with one to two feet of soil.  To stem erosion, most landfills historically have planted grasses like invasive Lespedeza sericea.

“Sustainability is all about maintaining our natural resources and helping protect our ecosystem. By implementing the Making Trash Bloom meadow planting at the I-66 Transfer Station, Fairfax County is enhancing our community’s natural resources and providing an example of what can be done with native plants,” Forbes commented. 

 What and How

To prepare for planting, managers mow and scalp the site down to bare earth.  Sustainability Matters’ teams plant seed mixes, some of which have 20 species of native wildflowers and native grasses that thrive in full sun. They prefer perennial plants that can outcompete invasive plants, attract pollinators and bloom throughout the year, plants like beebalm, Virginia wild rye, blue asters and oxeye sunflowers.

 Sponsors hope to attract insects like bees and butterflies and birds like grasshopper, field and white-throated sparrows.  “If you build it, they will come,” argues Rappahannock County native plant vendor and volunteer Janet David, “It can be a goldmine of ecosystem services.”

At the Rappahannock site, local students choreographed a seed-stomping dance to press the seeds into the ground and planters romped around to the tune of “Standing in the Sun” by Beyonce.

Flinging and stomping seeds is no guarantee of success so the group will monitor sites, especially during the first phases. Students and others will collect data.  “Meadows are hard their first few years,” says Carp, “to control invasive plants and get sites to a self-sustaining state.” 

Native plant meadows do not require the same frequency of mowing as landfill grasses, an advantage that officials applaud as saving energy and taxpayer dollars. Landfill managers may mow the native plant sites at times to discourage trees which cannot survive there long term.  

Longer Term

Carp views the projects as pilots to test seed mixes, site preparation, planting techniques, erosion control and invasive plant management and hopes to move to scalable models in expanding the projects. “We are trying to find a model that works,” she explains.  “The question was, what can we plant on trash? And I said, ‘Why not native plants?’” 

At the Rappahannock landfill, Jack Monsted, an assistant curator at Virginia’s state arboretum, summarized, “Without this, it’s a wasteland. We can reclaim it, make it more productive and provide ecosystem services.”

I-95 Landfill 

    Fairfax County’s 200-acre, I-95 Landfill in Lorton is home to a honeybee and pollinator habitat project, started in 2017.  

    The county is converting five acres of turf into native meadow habitat.  George Mason University’s Honey Bee Initiative Director Germán Perilla supervises 17 to 20 hives there.  Managers hope the project will increase honeybee populations which are in decline, increase a stable vegetative layer of perennial wildflowersand reduce runoff into the Occoquan and Potomac Rivers. Officials say the site also provides educational opportunities, increases sustainability and lowers maintenance costs.   

Mount Vernon Supervisor Dan Storck has championed this approach: “Along with the leadership of key residents, I have gotten our County to dramatically increase native landscaping and plantings on public and private properties to lessen yard space and increase natural habitats,” he offers.  “Landfills and open space are also perfect locations to create these nurturing environments. Our County is taking a proactive role in this climate mitigation strategy, continuing to repurpose our landfills and planting native gardens in many locations around the County.  However, we need every resident’s help to save our pollinators.”