The University of Southampton’s Ian D Williams, a member of the UK ISWA National Committee, looks at the history of landfill in the UK and asks if now is the right time to bury landfill for good?
Humans have always produced wastes. The quantities originally generated were insignificant due to low life expectancies, population densities and levels of exploitation of natural resources.
The wastes generated were mainly human and animal biodegradable wastes and ashes from fires set for cooking and heating purposes. Wastes of this nature in small quantities are easily released into the ground locally, with little or no environmental impacts.
As we evolved, we lived increasingly sophisticated lives that used more resources that led to the production of a wider range of wastes. Large-scale natural disasters, combined with our proclivity for death and destruction, triggered the need for disposal sites. In the United Kingdom (UK), the plague or Black Death (1348), the 15th century Wars of the Roses, the Great Plague of London (1665), the Great Fire of London (1666), and the 17th century Wars of the Three Kingdoms resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Whilst mass graves were used for burial of bodies, these events also left behind huge destruction to buildings and piles of discarded, damaged weapons, transportation, clothing and furniture, etc. The quantity and composition of these wastes meant that organised burial was becoming necessary.
A step-change in the amounts of waste generated occurred due to the industrial revolution of the mid-late 18th and early 19th centuries and the availability of modern medicine. Daily life was transformed with populations growing at a rapid rate and average incomes rising significantly.
The build-up of wastes in the streets of London led to the world’s first recorded waste management strategy
This enabled increased purchase of goods and services, with consequent rises in demand for raw materials, water and energy. The wastes generated became a particular problem in more densely populated urban areas, facilitating the spread of diseases and causing blight to quality of life.
The build-up of wastes in the streets of London led to the world’s first recorded waste management strategy. A customs official, Corbyn Morris, recognized that street cleaning was going to become essential to preserve the health of the people, and proposed a Waste Strategy for London in 1751.
Morris recommended an integrated London-wide approach to waste management, conveyance of wastes to sites outside the city and the use of selected wastes as a land improver. This idea rapidly spread to other cities. By 1800, London had an organized system for collecting and disposing residual waste and an informal system for collecting and selling recyclables.
The residual waste, mainly coal ash from domestic fires, was collected by private contractors who established so-called “dust yards” where materials were separated for sale as feedstock for brick-making and soil conditioner for growing crops. These yards provide an early example of the circular economy in action.
However, ongoing poor sanitation led to the spread of diseases such as cholera, smallpox and typhus, which caused a number of severe public health epidemics. Research reports by the social reformer Sir Edwin Chadwick led to the formation of local boards of health (the forerunners of local authorities) and the passing of the Public Health Act 1848.
Improving public health
This focus on improving public health, combined with legislation to curb air pollution and set up local government departments, led to the establishment of municipal authorities charged with collecting and disposing of waste and sewerage. The foundations of municipal solid waste management were set (Figure 1).
Landfill (and landraise) has been the principal method of waste disposal in the UK for the last 120 years. In the early 1970s, landfill sites were typically just large holes in the ground in which rubbish was squashed and buried with little regard for the consequences.
Landfills were designed on the “dilute and disperse” principle, which assumes that pollutants are generated slowly and migrate into the surrounding environment via chemical, physical, biological and microbiological processes that render them less concentrated until they become harmless.
This approach did not work well, with landfills causing considerable air, water and soil pollution and adverse social impacts. A combination of regulation and research required that the best landfill sites should become highly engineered containment vessels in which the deposited wastes have stabilised physically, chemically and biologically to a state in which the undisturbed contents are unlikely to pose a pollution risk – so-called “completion”.
Landfill (and landraise) has been the principal method of waste disposal in the UK for the last 120 years
In theory, stringent regulation is in place to ensure that UK landfill operators cannot walk away from their sites unless they have demonstrated that they no longer pose a threat to human health or the environment.
The European Union’s 1999 Landfill Directive set targets for diverting waste from landfill. The UK showed a commitment to shift from disposing waste straight to landfills, to recovering/reclaiming some value via incineration, composting, anaerobic digestion, recycling and reuse. Consequently, the number of landfill sites in the UK drastically reduced, from ~23,500 in 2001 to 574 in 2021. There has been a major decrease in total waste being disposed to UK landfill sites, from >90% in 1996 to ~24% in 2018. These are significant achievements.
Nevertheless, despite these huge changes, landfill continues to be a damaging method of waste disposal. It is well-established that landfills potentially pose significant adverse risks to our environment and to public health.
‘The right infrastructure’
In September 2021, the High Court made a landmark judgement that England’s Environment Agency wasn’t complying with its legal duty to protect the public from landfill gas. The court ruled that 5-year old Matthew Richards’s respiratory health problems were being worsened by fumes from Walleys Quarry landfill site.
In fact, more than 20 years ago, the Environment Agency was sufficiently worried that it funded the development of a landfill gas risk assessment model called GasSim. Studies into the health effects from landfill gas have provided conflicting results and there have often been calls for more research into its impacts.
A recent review concluded that disposal of solid waste in landfill continues to be risky but that lifestyles in developed countries mean that “the idea of WM systems functioning without landfilling – at least in the foreseeable future within one generation – seems to be somewhat unreal.” I disagree. Purely on environmental grounds, I have argued vociferously for two decades that landfill is a dead technology. I have argued that we should be proactively using the waste hierarchy to guide an approach to sustainable waste management by “aiming high.”
In place of ‘bury or burn’ waste disposal practices, waste prevention, reuse, recycling and the circular economy must be prioritised now, ensuring that the burden of waste is reduced…
I have argued that we must simultaneously build the right infrastructure, provide the right services and enable appropriate behaviour change to improve waste management.
In contrast to (larger) countries like Germany, where there are only ~160 landfill sites, and (smaller) countries like Ireland where there are only 2 landfill sites serving a population of >5 million, politicians in England have failed to provide the right leadership and waste policies to facilitate a move towards the circular economy.
Indeed, waste disposed via landfill in England actually increased by 4% in 2019. Although only 8% of local authority collected waste was landfilled in 2019/20, across all sectors, 30% of food waste and 59% of textile waste is currently landfilled. There is clearly huge room for improvement if we are proactive and determined to turn words into deeds.
We have started to take collective responsibility for the resource use upon which our standard of living depends, and the ecosystems fundamental to life. We are being forced to act by the realisation that the availability of the resources is declining, that climate impacts from wastes are real, that physical space for traditional waste management practices is becoming scarce.
In place of ‘bury or burn’ waste disposal practices, waste prevention, reuse, recycling and the circular economy must be prioritised now, ensuring that the burden of waste is reduced, the economy is developed sustainably and today’s products can form tomorrow’s raw materials by design.
For the protection of public health and our environment, now the time is right to bury landfill forever.