Landfill: A hole lot of trouble

Burying rubbish doesn't sound like the best solution to Britain's waste problems – but for decades landfill was regarded as the future. How wrong we were, says Kate Burt

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You've probably read reports of 1950s newspapers being excavated from landfill sites, intact and distinctly unbiodegraded. You may be aware that we each produce our own bodyweight in waste every 7.5 weeks [Wastewatch] and that 55 per cent of the UK's total generated municipal waste gets sent to landfill [Defra] where it fails to biodegrade.

The good news is that these figures are now on the slide – and quite dramatically (British landfill deposits have decreased by 33 per cent since 2000). But still, according to the Government's Environment Agency, as things stand, we only have eight years' worth of landfill space left in which to house all this rubbish. And wasn't that always going to happen? All of which makes one wonder: how did Britain ever come to the conclusion that dumping refuse into giant holes in the ground made any kind of sense – and why?

Did no one, for example, anticipate that burying a heady blend of debris, including heavy metals, varnish, bleach, batteries and antifreeze might create a bit of a pollution risk (the highly caustic liquid, or leachate, found at the bottom of landfill sites can have a PH value of up to 13, dangerously alkaline). Was no one aware that packing a cocktail of organic matter with all those old microwaves, car parts and plastic bags, meaning there's no oxygen to help it biodegrade, would create the potential for landfill sites to belch climate-altering levels of methane into the atmosphere – and that that isn't a good thing? And even without having the scientific nous to have worked out any of that – did nobody wonder what might happen when one day – ie, now – we started running out of space?

Well, apparently not. In fact, according to Mike Webster of the environmental charity, Wastewatch: "Historically, municipal landfills were seen as a step forward; a form of landscape remediation whereby you have a hole in the ground created by from open cast mining or quarrying, you fill it up and you can build on it. Besides, before that people had been dumping their waste outside their houses, in streams, in rivers."

Dr Timothy Cooper, professor of history at Exeter University, elaborates: "For the first three-quarters of the 19th century, the recycling of waste products had been a fairly common activity," he explains. "In many urban areas this discarded domestic refuse was collected by scavengers and dustmen and taken to dust-yards of the kind that inspired Dickens's novel Our Mutual Friend. There staff, usually women, were paid to rummage through the filth in search of reusable items such as brass, rags and waste paper." And the bulk of everyday household waste not hurled into the nearest river or alleyway for scavenger recycling, was burnt in domestic grates – the vast quantities of ashes from which were also valuable to the appropriately named dustmen and women, as a core ingredient of bricks and as fertiliser – meaning that this, too, could be sold on.

Apart from the unsavoury working conditions of the dust people, it sounds like an environmental win-win. So what happened?

According to Cooper, local authorities, and eventually the government, got involved and between 1880 and 1914, what has been described as Britain's "waste revolution" took place.

"By the 1880s," says Cooper, "the idea of miasma – the belief that if you smelt something that was rotting, it could transfer in your own body and start the process of decay inside you – had begun to take hold. An understanding of germs came next and a fear of refuse was cemented: a different understanding of disease and risk had begun."

And so local authorities began to develop a different view of waste: chiefly that they needed to control it. This, along with the rapid expansion of urban areas during the same period – and the subsequent increase in waste – combined to bring about, says Cooper, "a complete change in state and society's relationship with waste".

One response was to incinerate everything in terrifying-sounding furnaces known as "destructors". But these machines were expensive and when, after the First World War, government loans to local authorities began to dwindle, a "radical" new way to deal with waste was born: landfill or, as it was known then, "controlled tipping".

Britain was the perfect environment. "The reason we have had more landfill than our Continental neighbours," says Wastewatch's Mike Webster, "is that a more suitable geology – clay substrate, meaning things don't leak. We also have more holes in the ground in the form of quarries, and fewer earthquakes. In places like Holland, you dig a hole in the ground and it fills with water."

The idea was partly pioneered in Bradford after the war, where the council boasted of the method's power for social reform in allowing "reclaimed" land to be used for parks or hospitals. "The idea of finding a depression in the ground created by a quarry, for example, and filling it with refuse layered with ash was pretty crude," says Dr Cooper, who is also working on a Wellcome Trust project on people's experiences of health risks and early landfilling. "And yet they presented it as amazingly hi-tech, which is what waste disposal people always do."

By the Twenties, central Government had taken the reins to make it a bureaucratic and legislated system, though the term landfill did not arrive until after the Second World War.

Partly due to the 1958 CHK Clear Air Act, which prevented householders from burning much of their waste, the adoption of landfills increased. It was also discovered the method of incineration in use had pumped carcinogenic smoke into the air. We were also generating an unprecedented amount of waste.

By the Seventies, landfill was in its "heyday". Age-old concepts – the rag and bone man, deposit bottles – disappeared and as we embraced "throwaway culture", our landfills got fat. And as for the idea of running out of space? No chance. "There was never a shortage of that," says Peter Jones OBE, the former director of Biffa Waste who runs his own waste consultancy. "We were creating holes at a faster rate than we were filling them up to supply the housing and construction industries. It seemed like a virtuous circle."

Indeed, it is only in the last 10 or so years that the Government has begun reducing the number of available sites – and increasing the tax for those who make deposits (it is set to rise to £80 per tonne by 2014/15).

"Affluence has partly been a driver," acknowledges Mike Webster of the landfill's erstwhile popularity. "You get rich, you produce more waste – even if you recycle more." He says the future lies firmly in waste prevention. He cites the waste hierarchy model: at the bottom? Yes, you guessed it, landfill. Next up, energy recovery through, say, safe, modern incineration methods (this is a double-edged sword, he explains. "It's the 'feeding the dragon' argument,": to justify investment in a hugely expensive incinerator that can generate energy, the machines must maintain a high level of waste consumption – thus discouraging recycling and prevention). Then there's recycling, followed by reuse – with waste prevention at the top of the pile.

As for what to do with the waste we'll continue to produce, Peter Jones says the rapidly increasing tax on landfill, which he lobbied for, may finally make several other previously-too-expensive solutions economically viable.

The cheapest is composting, and the more expensive anaerobic digestion (bacteria break down refuse) is the flavour of the month. There are also alternative thermal systems to incineration and the conversion of waste into biofuels.

But what of the waste we've made? With the knowledge that methane produced by landfill was responsible for 3 per cent of the UK's total emissions, according to Jones, many landfill sites resembled oilfields, with pipe networks siphoning off the gas and diverting it to the National Grid as green energy. Once the methane has gone, says Jones, landfill "mining" could be worth a go.

"During the boom years of the Nineties and Noughties," he says, "probably more than 60 million tonnes of plastic were deposited: washed and dried chipped, that could go for around £250-300 per tonne. There's also, maybe, 50 million tonnes of glass – only £20 per tonne – and if you think of all the mobile phones, electronic equipment, scrap from cars, cookers and fridges, there's probably a fair amount of ferrous and non-ferrous metals in there and rarer metals – even gold – that might," he says, if the associated challenges can be overcome, "be worth going in for."

And if we manage to sort any of that out, perhaps that alarming eight years left in the world of landfill might be eked out for a bit longer.

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