That landfill on the outskirts of your town stuffed with trash may now be playing a part to light and heat your home. Helping communities turn noxious odors into green energy is one of the jobs of an Omaha-based engineering firm.
But to Gary Kuhn, it’s not just a job to protect the environment, it’s a passion.
“It’s all about being responsible for the environment,” Kuhn said. “The same principles and values I try to instill in my kids, I hope are consistent with the values that I try to provide with my professional services.”
Starting out with an Express loan
He took that passion, and nearly 25 years of experience in environmental and civil engineering, to found his own consulting firm in 2012: G.N. Kuhn Engineering, LLC. Kuhn used a quick approval for an SBA Express loan through First National Bank for start-up costs, including a new desktop computer, engineering software, field equipment and working capital. Thanks to networking and referrals across the Midwest region to meet the growing demand for environmentally-smart waste management services, he expects to match 2012 revenues by April of this year, and hopes to open an office shortly.
Typical projects for the firm involve preparation of design documents, permit applications, and negotiated permit conditions for landfill and other solid waste management facilities throughout the Midwest. Kuhn also is providing landfill gas services to several clients using landfill gas collection systems to capture and control methane gas generated as trash decomposes within the landfill.
While Kuhn’s firm primarily is focused on solid waste management projects, consulting work also includes landfill site preparation, site grading, building parking areas, roadways, drainage, sanitary sewers, coordination of site utilities, and erosion controls.
Today, one of the fastest-growing trends in renewable energy is to collect landfill gas and send it to nearby utility companies to be turned into electricity, or conveyed directly to manufacturing plants, schools or other buildings to fuel heating and cooling systems. Some facilities use the gas to power the very devices that collect the gas in the first place. The entire process is so carefully managed to prevent leaks or odors that nearby neighborhoods scarcely notice a landfill even exists next door.
“Landfills are so much more than just a hole in the ground,” Kuhn said. “I realized there’s so much more proactive engineering involved in the planning, designing, construction, operating, and monitoring of these facilities so a leak is either detected immediately or they don’t leak in the first place.”
Keeping trash from clogging landfills is daunting
There’s big business in trash: owners of landfills, often municipalities, but sometimes private waste corporations, spend millions on liner systems and gas collection systems.
“The facilities are large investments and the owners almost are offended if you call it a dump; in reality, it’s an engineered solid waste facility.” But there’s another reason why there’s sustainable business in trash.
“If you read what the Environmental Protection Agency reports, the amount of material we’re recycling in this country is just enough to keep up with population growth,” Kuhn said. “The amount of waste disposed of in landfills isn’t increasing, it’s leveled off. Ideally you’d like a zero waste world, but there’s not enough recycling right now to eliminate the need for landfills.”
While municipalities seek to strengthen recycling programs, and Kuhn sees a consistent desire for clean water and air, “there’s a cost. So communities need a balance. In my work I’m not just looking at disposal of trash, I take a holistic approach to solid waste management, working with them to reduce, reuse and recycle to divert those materials from a landfill in the first place.”
Prior to starting his own firm, he provided similar planning, permitting, design, construction and compliance services at solid waste facilities across Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri; he’s also served with the Cornhusker Chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America and the American Public Works Association.
Lifelong dedication to environmental work
Kuhn’s decision to become an environmental engineer was made while in college when he decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, a retired environmental engineer with the Union Pacific railroad.
“I always knew I wanted to be an engineer,” he explained, “but it was my father’s guidance and insight into the role an environmental engineer plays in the protection and restoration of our water, land and air environments that began my professional journey.
Kuhn said he tries to set an example, recycling at home and at work, and has been invited by his kids’ teachers to talk to middle school and high school students about the importance of recycling and being good stewards of the environment.
“Recycling and overall environmental awareness is everybody’s responsibility,” he added, “not just for my clients or other consultants like me.”