Trees absorb landfill pollution in a research trial in Wisconsin – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Menomoni Falls – The perfectly spaced rows of trees between the old Boundary Road landfill and Boundary Road are not there to take your eyes off the ground, or to increase the area, although they do have this effect.

They’re actually doing a much more important job — removing pollution from the old landfill, as it moves with runoff and groundwater, and breaking down or sequestering chemicals within its branches or leaves.

It’s part of an experience by United States Forest Service To see if plants could be a natural solution to the issue of pollutants leaching from old landfills.

All trees are different forms of poplar, willow, or conifers, all selected for their ability to ingest certain types of pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products, pesticides, or even industrial byproducts. After several growing seasons, trees now stretch out into the sky, consuming more and more potentially polluted water each year.

The first-of-its-kind experiment will involve trees in landfill capture pollutants

border road dumpwhich was run by Waste Management, is part of a large experiment spanning the watersheds of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, hoping to find out how many pollutants trees can capture and treat as they seep from old landfills, in a process known as phytoremediation.

Ron Zalesny, a supervisory plant geneticist with the US Forest Service based in Rhinelander, hopes to show that these “barriers” of trees can benefit not only the Great Lakes, but the world at large when it comes to preventing pollution from seeping in. Old landfills. It is the first experiment of its kind to be conducted with funding from Great Lakes Restoration InitiativeIn an effort to keep pollutants out of the Great Lakes region.

But there are many far-reaching implications for the project and its future results.

“It can be done anywhere in the world,” Zalesny said. “If you think about all the impacts from human activities around the world, whether they are from pollution or other waste or just human activity, these barriers have global significance.”

And an added bonus: Treating pollutants with trees instead of costly filtration systems can save money for cities and countries looking for solutions.

said Chung Ho Lin, a professor of forestry at the University of Missouri, who has been working on the project along with the Forest Service.

Across Wisconsin and Michigan, 15 more sites were planted with a mixture of poplar and willow trees, with a mix of different types of each tree type. Other trees were planted in Michigan in Marquette, Munising, and Escanaba. in Wisconsin, in Green Bay, Manitowoc and Caledonia, among others. In total, there are about 22,000 trees across the sites.

The team working alongside the Forest Service hopes to find which trees can get the job done, and how well the plants perform repair tasks over time.

It’s not that waste management isn’t addressing the pollution from closed landfills—they actually collect polluted flowing water, called leachate, capture the gas released by decomposing garbage, and monitor groundwater. Trees are tested in addition to those ongoing practices.

Specialized poplar trees, selected lab-bred willows

Phytoremediation can work in many different ways. Trees can absorb pollutants and in some cases, their internal processes break down the compounds, making them smaller, safer compounds that are then released into the air.

Sometimes these compounds are released through the leaves entirely but then are broken down by sunlight as they are pushed out.

The tree can also absorb pollutants and put them in the leaves — something Zalesny said they try to avoid when choosing certain tree species, because the leaves fall to the ground and decompose each fall.

Contaminants can also be retained in the wood, so if a tree is cut down, it can be disposed of in a way that destroys the compounds it contains or redirected in such a way that the pollutants are forever contained within.

In some cases, tree roots attract some microorganisms, which in turn feed on pollutants coming from the landfill.

“Trees provide the environment, organisms eat pollution and that’s a win-win,” Zalesny said. “So think of these as breaking down into less harmful forms of pollutants.”

“We want to be able to match a certain type to the pollution and to go one step further and say ‘Where do we want this pollutant?'” Zalesny said. “We are working to identify varieties that are compatible with those conditions.”

The research team is working to determine what pollutants they want the trees to absorb. Trees won’t be the answer to all the hundreds of thousands of chemicals that the leachate can contain, said Liz Rogers, a graduate student from the University of Missouri Columbia.

“We need to choose which are more harmful to humans and the environment,” Rogers said. “So we can target our systems to capture and process those most harmful pollutants.”

Over the next several years, Rogers and other researchers will closely monitor all of the plants’ buffers, tracking and carefully measuring how much pollutants the trees are able to absorb and get rid of.

Not just any type of tree can be used to treat pollutants, Zalesny said.

“Trees are not something that Home Depot or Menards go to and buy,” he said. “They are specialized poplars and willows that have historically been bred for biomass and bioenergy applications.”

While you may find some similar trees at a local nursery, these trees are specifically bred in a laboratory, either by the Forest Service or the University of Missouri.

Trees are bred to grow more quickly, said Brent Diebauch, a research specialist at the university.

“These trees grow very quickly, and they establish themselves quickly,” he said. “That’s one of the main reasons to plant it here.”

Each grove of trees near the participating dumps is a mixture of different types of poplar and willow. The team implanted a mix to monitor the abilities of each different shape.

Poplar trees in particular were chosen because there are so many different species within the species and because they can be found all over the world

“There is also a rich history in the study of poplar,” Zalesny said. “It will grow anywhere and has good disease resistance.”

The project will take up to 15 years and the results can be profound

For now, the researchers will continue to tend to the trees, both at the Boundary Road landfill and others.

They are only about four years into their work, and while the early signs are promising, their work has yet to undergo peer review or reach the point where any firm conclusions have been reached.

Zalesny estimated that the project would need to last anywhere from 10 to 15 years in total, at which point a closer look will be taken at the trees themselves.

“We will do a final harvest and look at the actual effectiveness of the system,” he said.

But there is still a lot of excitement to learn that Zalesny and other researchers are doing something that hasn’t been tried before, and they will be able to provide a robust data set, showing the effectiveness of different types of trees in different places.

“This is the largest plant technology domain network in the world,” he said. “And if we’re able to keep this until the end of its life cycle, it’s basically data that no one has ever been able to collect.”

And this data could be of great use not only to researchers in the Great Lakes region, or even just the United States.

“This is a real and real asset now, to both the scientific community and government agencies,” said Chung Ho Lin. “I can see now, this is a real treasure.”

Laura Schulte can be reached at and on Twitter at Tweet embed.

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