Standing on top of 90m of waste makes for an impressive vantage point.
More from: Memories of a landfill
At the summit of the Packington landfill site in Birmingham, you can take in a 360° view over the neighbouring NEC and Birmingham airport, as well as the Warwickshire countryside.
Once deemed the busiest landfill site in Europe, the facility – which had a 118ha waste footprint – closed in February this year after 50 years of operation.
The Suez-managed site contains around 35 million tonnes of buried waste, which forms a big hill that is visible to commuters from the M42, close to its junction with the M6.
Stuart Hayward-Higham, technical development director at Suez, has been based at Packington for the past 20 years and grew up in neighbouring Coleshill.
He explains: “It is relatively unique in being a hill at such a height. But I think the most unique part is that it has been here for more years than I’ve been alive, and therefore it is the full history of waste management – from the 1950s onwards.
“So you can see some of the earlier phases composed of ash, glass and porcelain, and you look at the profligate 1990s when it is full of everything. Then you go to the environmentally sensitive late 1990s and 2000s, when you get less and less material. So it’s a record of our societal activities in waste.”
He adds: “If you go to the other side of the site, which isn’t ours, there is a turn-of-thecentury landfill, which used to be owned by the local authority, which is nothing but fire ash and glass, and bits of porcelain. That’s all we used to throw away, because we used to give unwanted food to pigs, we did not have plastic, and paper used to go in the fire, so there wasn’t much to throw away.”
The site was originally a quarry, operated by one of the big companies. It is understood that the original quarry – which had a maximum depth of only 3-10m – had a requirement that it be restored. Land owner Packington Estate Enterprises looked to restore the site, in effect, to a flat plane with imported waste. It later lifted the profile to allow more waste.
The reason it later became a hill is attributed to a man called Tony Biddle, who had done a lot of restoration while in the army in Germany and learned there about building big mounds of rubble and covering them over to make grassy hills. Hayward-Higham met Biddle a couple of times when he first joined Suez and Biddle had already retired as site manager.
He recounts how he was quite a character who never really retired from waste: Biddle’s house had a window that looked on to the site, and he had restoration profile and a piece of tape on his window to follow the progress – dropping into the site to tell staff where it needed to build up the hill’s profile.
“My understanding of that story is that Biddle was employed to manage the site and his first concept was, ‘we need a hill – we can get a lot more in a hill’. So they created a small hill, and then went back and got planning for two hills, and then they applied for planning for a big hill. Just after they got that planning permission, BFI bought the site and the company changed the hill from a convex to a concave shape.”
Hayward-Higham adds that the permission granted in the 1980s went above the radar profile for neighbouring Birmingham airport, so the site has to put lights on when it carries out activity at the top such as drilling. But, ultimately, the hill’s height should not be a problem because the waste will settle over time and the hill will get smaller.
Despite the distinct change in the site’s profile over the years, Hayward-Higham says it has never really had issues with planning and public perception: “I was involved in the last application under BFI/Sita and we had very few responses. But some people said ‘please don’t take that hill away’ because they thought we were digging it up, not filling it in.”
He says the biggest objection received was from the airport, which had misinterpreted what it was doing – changing the flanks of the hill – and was concerned about a bigger hill interfering with its radar as well as the site attracting lots of birds. But these fears were allayed and addressed, and the two have enjoyed a good relationship.
As well as the change in Packington’s physical profile, adaptations have been made to it over the years as legislation has changed. For example, the site’s gatehouse was built in 1996 when landfill tax came into play, so that trucks could be weighed and charged accordingly. Before that, the site had only a small office building. Loads until then were not weighed but price was calculated on volume instead. So trucks were measured and a price was charged based on the average weight of a vehicle of that size.
Hayward-Higham explains that, historically, the landfill would have been visited by lots of small operators with small trucks and small loads, before the industry turned to the bulking of waste and the use of transfer stations and larger vehicles. This change resulted in more tonnage coming to the site on fewer trucks, which was easier to manage. At the same time, the vehicles became road-based articulated trucks rather than off-roaders. So in 1998 the company put in tarmac on the weighbridge and the main roads, which had to be built to take into account ongoing settlement of the waste.
The landfill has a natural clay bottom. A lot of the northern part of the site originally used the ‘dilute and disperse’ method that was prevalent at the time, so it was not contained. But as regulations tightened, clay was taken from the bottom and put on the sides.
When permission was obtained for the big hill, the site committed to retrofit a side wall on all parts that did not have one. In four phases, a 2.1km ‘slurry’ wall was put in. This is essentially a liquid clay cement that is dug into the ground to create a wall one metre wide to lock into the clay. At points, this was 30m deep.
Hayward-Higham explains: “I was an engineer and did the third phase. I designed and managed it for a consultancy for the client, BFI, and then the fourth phase I did as the client, subcontracting it to the consultancy I had left.” He adds that each phase took a summer to complete, and the whole process took around six or seven years.
He recalls: “In 1996 we had to design, plan, get permits for and build the gatehouse for landfill tax purposes, so I had to go through the implications of landfill tax here and all the changes in the systems, the measuring and the weighbridges.
“We were capping 60-odd hectares that year, so we imported half a million tonnes of clay from Cannock down to Southam and then, two years later, we put the leachate system in. We had one base which was natural clay but wasn’t up to spec, so we had to dig out 600,000 tonnes of old waste, reline the base, and then put that waste back. We built our biggest cell that year, which is about 12 hectares, and I think we spent £4m in a year on the site doing all of that.”
Digging out such a volume of waste – which included hazardous and non-hazardous material from its time as a co-disposal site, such as unbonded asbestos – meant that measures had to be put into place to manage the process: “We worked in a mist of water so there was no dust and we had to cover vehicles, that sort of process.”
Impressively, given the amount of waste that was dug up, the company had no complaints from the public or the Environment Agency – just a small matter with the Health and Safety Executive because it did not have quite enough portable toilets on-site.
The exercise also unearthed some interesting relics from the past.
“Dealing with old waste is quite fascinating. It’s a bit like going through your loft and seeing things you haven’t seen before,” says Hayward- Higham. “So while digging up this area, we found the old Birmingham Co-op. We had labels and signs from it, the concrete, bits of fridges and other things from when it was demolished.”
Indeed, there is a fondness for the site from staff who have worked there for years, as well as customers. In the case of the Co-op, some of the staff who had originally buried it were the ones digging it up years later – while at the site’s February closing party, one customer included a grandfather, father and son who had been using the landfill for three generations of the family business. Over the years, the weighbridge staff saw several businesses passed down from father to son, building up a rapport with all the family.
Currently Packington is being profiled and contractors will start capping the top, putting the final low-permeability water and gas constraining layer in. The compost being used for restoration is made on-site in the composting area, but soils will need to be imported due to the large surface area that needs to be covered. Once it is covered, planting can take place, with a full restoration plan including developing meadows, copses of trees, wildlife corridors, footpaths and bridleways.
“In theory, it becomes a country park managed by the local authority,” Hayward- Higham says. “Whether that is achieved or not, given the current financial status, we don’t know, but we are required to do the planning for it.”
The hill is expected to initially settle about one metre a year. But this rate will tail off so that, within 10 years, its rate of settlement will be in the tens of centimetres a year and then centimetres a year. While this takes place, the site will remain fairly active. Gas wells and leachate wells which stick out of the ground will need their tops cutting off and re-welding. The gas curve generated by the site will follow the degradation of the waste.
“We have a team of people who monitor outside the site for any signs of pollution that might arise and, if we find any, we have to address it. That continues until the site is complete,” Hayward-Higham explains.
Packington will eventually reach a point where it represents no hazard to the environment, somewhere beyond 30 years from now. Then it will no longer need monitoring but, during the interim, it will be a case of monitoring and maintenance.
Although the landfill operation has closed, composting, wood shredding and electricity production will all continue alongside the necessary leachate treatment for many years to come – as long as they are needed.
“We can isolate the site in a way that means we can open a lot of it to the public, if that’s the ultimate desire,” says Hayward-Higham. “Certainly the southern two-thirds can be opened up and people kept away from us while we are still operating. Ultimately, the site will become fully closed and we will then operate only the leachate and gas plants.
“But we will still need access to trim the gas extraction and maintain the pumps, so we will have a presence here at Packington for at least 30 years. The site’s full closure is a while off – I might come back in a wheelchair or need a walking stick to see it close, if I’m still around!”