Public planning, especially in the area of solid waste management, is an extremely complex subject. Geographic information systems (GIS) can be valuable tools in the environmental planner’s toolbox, saving time, money and headaches when planning collection routes, siting processing facilities, as well as choosing locations for landfills and planning what will become of the landfill once it is full. As GIS technology has become easier to use and more cost-effective, more and more government agencies are employing GIS professionals. Chances are your city or county already has a GIS professional just waiting to help with your solid waste management project. This article will provide an overview of GIS and how it can be applied to the various areas of solid waste management.

What is GIS?

A geographic information system is an interconnected web of hardware and software designed to collect, organize, analyze, store and display spatially referenced data in order to answer complex questions. What does this mean to the environmental planning professional? Simply put, GIS is a way to take data you already have along with data you can gather from tools such as GPS receivers, and combine, organize and manipulate it to serve a higher purpose. GIS can be used to solve complex planning problems often associated with the management of solid waste.

One of the most time-consuming aspects of using GIS planning is data acquisition. In many instances the data may already be available but must be formatted so that it is compatible with GIS software. In the event you have to acquire new data, it will take time and money, but when complete will provide a structure for future applications.

Research Limitations Note: In putting together this article I discovered a fair amount of research relating to GIS applications in certain areas of solid waste management, routing and landfill siting specifically. However, an overwhelming majority of the published literature was related to solid waste management in European nations and not in the United States. Another issue I noticed is that a majority of the available GIS-related research focused on broad environmental issues, such as habitat destruction and preservation. Some of the applications that will be outlined below could benefit from further academic research.