Northern Research Station News Releases

Research Gives Trees an Edge in Landfill Clean-up

Agroforestry phytoremediation buffer system in southeastern Wisconsin. Photo by Paul Manley, Missouri University of Science and Technology; used with permission. Rhinelander, WI, April 28, 2021 - A research team from the USDA Forest Service and the University of Missouri has developed a new contaminant prioritization tool that has the potential to increase the effectiveness of environmental approaches to landfill clean-up.

Phytoremediation – an environmental approach in which trees and other plants are used to control leachate and treat polluted water and soil – hinges on matching the capability of different tree species with the types of contaminants present in soil and water. Identifying the worst contaminants within the dynamic conditions of a landfill has been challenging.

“Thousands of contaminants can be present in landfill leachate, and contamination can vary by location and over time, so it can be difficult to determine what needs to be, or even can be targeted with environmental remediation,” said Elizabeth Rogers, a USDA Forest Service Pathways intern and the lead author of the study. “This tool allows site managers to prioritize the most hazardous contaminants or customize the tool to address local concerns.”

Rogers and co-authors Ron Zalesny, Jr., a supervisory research plant geneticist with the Northern Research Station, and Chung-Ho Lin, a Research Associate Professor at the University of Missouri’s Center for Agroforestry, combined multiple sources of data to develop a pollutant prioritization tool that systematically prioritizes contaminants according to reported toxicity values. The study, “A systematic approach for prioritizing landfill pollutants based on toxicity: Applications and opportunities,” is available through the Northern Research Station at:  

Knowing which contaminants are the most hazardous allows scientists like Zalesny to better match trees and tree placement in landfills. “Phytoremediation research has focused on discovering which trees work best in particular soils and sites,” Zalesny said. “The ability to home in on specific contaminants will enhance phytoremediation outcomes.”

The pollutant prioritization tool allows for greater transparency on the benefits of phytoremediation. “When you know what you are targeting, you can provide better information to your community on how long remediation will take and how effective it is,” Lin said.


The mission of the Northern Research Station is to improve people's lives and help sustain the natural resources in the Northeast and Midwest through leading-edge science and effective information delivery.


The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains world-renowned forestry research and wildland fire management organizations. National forests and grasslands contribute more than $30 billion to the American economy annually and support nearly 360,000 jobs. These lands also provide 30 percent of the nation's surface drinking water to cities and rural communities; approximately 60 million Americans rely on drinking water that originated from the National Forest System.


USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. To file a complaint of discrimination, write to USDA, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Stop 9410, Washington, DC 20250-9410, or call toll-free at (866) 632-9992 (English) or (800) 877-8339 (TDD) or (866) 377-8642 (English Federal-relay) or (800) 845-6136 (Spanish Federal-relay).

Last modified: April 28, 2021