Landfill crisis: What a waste

When your rubbish leaves the house, where does it go - and why have we run out of places to dump it?
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The Independent Online

Bud is just trash. Total rubbish. An empty beer bottle, actually: the name comes from his label, because he has to be called something to distinguish him from all the other bits of rubbish that were stuffed into bin bags outside my house. The dustmen came at 8.50am. The story of what happened to Bud after that is the story of why Britain is running out of holes in the ground in which to dump its rubbish; and the story of why the Government wants to build at least 30 more incinerators across the country, which environmental campaigners say will pump ash and dioxins into the air.

We produce so much rubbish. Thirty million tons; enough to fill the Albert Hall every hour. Waste experts love stats and illustrations like those, but don't be put off by them or fooled by the folksy nickname for the bottle. This is serious. The landfill sites we have used until now are almost full. It's hard to get permission to build new ones: would you want dustcarts thundering past your house every few minutes bringing other people's stinking rubbish to be tipped into what used to be fields? Where I live, in East Sussex, the two landfill sites are predicted to close within three years. What will we do then? Currently, 73 per cent of all rubbish produced in the UK is dumped in landfill sites.

One answer is to use less stuff. There is no sign of that happening. Another is to recycle more. My council provides a green plastic box which can be filled with paper, glass and cans. When we remember. English households recycle 23 per cent of rubbish, way below countries such as Norway where the rate is 68 per cent. Britain has one of the worst records in Europe. The European Union will hit local councils with heavy fines if they cannot slash their use of landfill sites to 35 per cent in the next few years: the London boroughs, for example, may have to pay £100m a year.

"The days of chucking waste into holes in the ground are over," says Peter Jones, a director of the refuse company Biffa. The Institute of Civil Engineers says Britain needs a national network for rubbish, like the national grid for electricity, costing £10bn to set up.

Last week it was reported that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wants to treble the amount being incinerated. That would mean at least 30 more huge chimneys burning refuse and producing electricity - a useful thought for the Government, as it prepares to publish its Energy Review this week, proposing solutions to the power shortages that will be caused by the end of North Sea gas. The review will say a third of all power stations will need replacing by 2020. Nuclear is on the agenda, but so are incinerators, even though environmentalists say they are inefficient, cause pollution and can damage health.

People certainly do not like them in the port of Newhaven, a dozen miles along the South Downs Way from our house. A new incinerator is to be built there, burning 210,000 tons of rubbish a year. The site is a grim industrial estate, but local residents worry that the chimney will belch out dangerous heavy metals and dioxins that may cause cancer. They are not convinced by reassurances that modern incinerators have sophisticated filters that make them safe. They want a public inquiry. The battle has been long and bitter - opponents accuse the council of "ivory-tower arrogance", the council leader accuses them of "dubious science". And it will be fought out in many other places across the country if the reports about Defra's intentions are right.

In the meantime, what happens to Bud? He should have been put in the recycling box and lifted on to the flatbed truck that comes round. Bottles, jars, papers, magazines and cans are sorted by hand on the truck as it crawls along. "It is quite a slow process," admits Eddie Smith, a gentle chap in a dirty fluorescent vest. His team left the depot at 7am today and took until 2pm to finish collecting from a small area of town. "People are recycling more now, so it takes longer. That's good, I suppose."

The contract for my town, Eastbourne, is operated by a company called Sita. The recycling trucks drop their contents off at a waste transfer site, where they are collected by lorries from various factories. The cans are then driven 256 miles to Llanelli in South Wales, and put on to a conveyor belt. Steel is separated from aluminium using magnets and blasts of air. Then the cans are melted down and the metal sent away to be used to make new cars, bikes, fridges and cans. Each ton saves 95 per cent of the energy that would be consumed if virgin metal were used.

The paper is driven 291 miles up to Deeside, where the print is washed off with glycerine. The paper is pulped, sieved to get rid of the staples, and sprayed on to heated rollers. It emerges in vast rolls, to be used for pads, books and newspapers.

The glass is sorted into three kinds: brown, clear and green. There is a glut of green, because we drink a lot of wine these days but do not have a home-grown wine industry that can use the glass again. From Eastbourne it is driven 200 miles up to Derbyshire and turned into cullet, the raw material for bottles and jars. This saves a third of the energy that might have been used with new glass.

So Bud might have held booze again, or become some of those lovely glass pebbles that fashionable people buy from garden centres. But I forgot to put him in the box. That happens to 14 million bottles and jars every day. Like everything else bundled into the black bin bags, they just go to landfill.

"It is such a shame because the materials are out there and they could make such a difference, but we just have to persuade people that recycling is easy, an everyday thing," says Fiona Henrickson of Eastbourne Borough Council, which has seen recycling rise from 6 per cent to 20 per cent in five years. New collections of garden waste, plastic and textiles are being introduced.

Meanwhile, for shame, Bud has gone off in a bin bag with the old cornflake boxes, curry trays, vegetable peel and that sludge you always get at the bottom. A big blue dustcart took him out of town and 17 miles along the coast road to the outskirts of Hastings. The vast landfill site there is hidden from the view of the town by earthen ramparts. From a distance such places look like quarries. Close up, the labels and logos become clear: this is the card and plastic vomit that we spew after a spending frenzy. Now that the holes are filling up we may have to face the mess we make - or burn it, and risk the consequences.

Bud is there, slowly sinking as the biodegradable waste beneath him rots and methane is released. Glass stays around forever. Not far away is Battle, where the Normans conquered nearly a thousand years ago. In a thousand years you and I - and probably all our descendants - will be gone, but Bud will still be there. He's not going away, and neither are millions like him. That, very seriously indeed, is the problem.