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Facts about Landfill

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Landfill: The facts

The UK was warned that it could run out of landfill capacity within eight years if current rates were continued.

While the proportion of waste recycled hasn’t changed a great deal in the last five years – it has, in fact, stalled at around 44% – we’re not quite three years away from all our landfill sites bursting at the seams. So, what’s happening?

The truth is that landfill sites around the United Kingdom are still nearing capacity, and Devon recently said that it was actively searching for new sites as all of its current facilities were reaching the end of their lives. It’s the same story across the country, with Dorset examining the possibility of depositing waste in disused Portland stone quarries, which ran into opposition from the 16,000 people living nearby.

And that’s where the problem lies. As with most refuse handling and management projects, the opinions of nearby residents are a powerful voice against expanding or opening new landfill sites. Unless you have a friendly, exhausted stone or gravel site that needs refilling in a relatively remote area, finding new landfill acreage is an enduring problem for waste management professionals and local authorities alike.

Certainly, tighter landfill allowances as laid down by the central government are having an effect. The £150 per tonne penalty for exceeding these allowances as set down by ministry officials have proved a deterrent to authorities that have been slow to investigate alternatives, and the landfill tax for commercial users has certainly helped. With tighter council budgets the result of austerity programs and a freeze on council tax income, the swing toward alternatives such as energy recovery is clear.

It’s tempting for councils and waste handlers to turn to a “scorched earth” policy and burn everything that can’t currently be recycled, and that’s become the subject of some debate within the industry. Is it fine to replace one unsustainable waste process with one which is equally unsustainable? While energy recovery takes the pressure off landfill sites, the short-term benefit of low-cost energy is offset by CO2 release and the ultimate destruction of materials.

It’s obvious that a third way is needed, but in the meantime, energy recovery is the preferred solution to landfill.

What happens when a landfill is closed?

Everyone in the waste management industry knows that landfill capacity in the UK is running out fast. Without a strategy for opening new sites, mixed with greater efforts to prevent waste from ending up in landfills in the first place, the industry could be faced with a crisis within just a few years.

Landfill sites reaching capacity is an issue that every waste management company and every local authority has to face at some time or another. While the need for new sites is still urgent, how does the industry deal with sites that are due to be shut down?

The challenge that both authorities and companies face is returning a multi-acre site to an acceptable state while showing respect to the potentially dangerous material beneath the soil.

Many landfill sites generate gasses such as methane which – apart from being a greenhouse gas – need to be collected and disposed of safely, usually through burning. There are also issues of subsidence. Sites that are filled to a rounded “crown” will eventually settle down as refuse rots or collapses. That – of course – means that former landfill sites are not usually acceptable for development, a fact that some local authorities are paying the price for after ill-advised building programs in the 1970s.

The accepted process is to return the site to nature, and there are grants and tax breaks available to enable the waste industry to do just that.

One such scheme is the Landfill Communities Fund (LCF), which offers tax credits that allow operators of landfill sites to contribute money to organisations enrolled with the scheme’s regulator ENTRUST to promote sustainable working in the waste management industry. These Environmental Bodies carry out projects to reduce pollution, reclaim land, and also to create parks and natural habitats.

The LCF allows waste management companies to work together with groups to make life better for communities living near to former and current landfill sites. The scheme means that Landfill Operators can claim a credit of 5.7% against their landfill tax liability, and this forms 90% of their contribution to the Environmental Bodies. The extra 10% is made up of donations or through a third party.

The importance of returning former landfill sites to usable land, as well as improving the conditions around current sites cannot be emphasised enough. Working with communities improves the image of the industry, and leaves the country just that little bit greener.

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