Woody plant roots fail to penetrate a clay-lined landfill: Managment implications

George R. Robinson, Steven N. Handel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


In many locations, regulatory agencies do not permit tree planting above landfills that are sealed with a capping clay, because roots might penetrate the clay barrier and expose landfill contents to leaching. We find, however, no empirical or theoretical basis for this restriction, and instead hypothesize that plant roots of any kind are incapable of penetrating the dense clays used to seal landfills. As a test, we excavated 30 trees and shrubs, of 12 species, growing over a clay-lined municipal sanitary landfill on Staten Island, New York. The landfill had been closed for seven years, and featured a very shallow (10 to 30-cm) soil layer over a 45-cm layer of compacted grey marl (Woodbury series) clay. The test plants had invaded naturally from nearby forests. All plants examined-including trees as tall as 6 m-had extremely shallow root plates, with deformed tap roots that grew entirely above and parallel to the clay layer. Only occasional stubby feeder roots were found in the top 1 cm of clay, and in clay cracks at depths to 6 cm, indicating that the primary impediment to root growth was physical, although both clay and the overlying soil were highly acidic. These results, if confirmed by experimental research should lead to increased options for the end use of many closed sanitary landfills.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)57-64
Number of pages8
JournalEnvironmental Management
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1995

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pollution
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology


  • Clay liner
  • Evironmental regulation
  • Restoration ecology
  • Root penetration
  • Santary landfills
  • Woody plants


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