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Why landfill still has a supporting role

During festival season, as the metaphorical crowd grows to see the circular economy (CE) headlining on the main stage, it’s time to look down for a moment and remember what keeps our feet protected from the brown stuff when things don’t go according to plan – our ‘landfill wellies’.

The UK has made great strides in landfill diversion, comfortably exceeding EU targets. The availability of landfill sites has, as a result, declined from 2,000 at the turn of the millennium to 338 accepting waste in 2014 (Defra 2016) or just 103 once small sites are stripped out. This has been predicted to drop to 55 by 2020 (Tolvik Consulting, 2011) but there are signs it could be even lower.

Meanwhile recycling has soared from an average of 10% of municipal solid waste in 2000 to more than 40% by 2010, and now hovering under 45%.

But initial successes are hard to maintain. Public sector cuts and low secondary material prices mean the economic challenges of recycling have begun to bite. Investment in infrastructure has likewise taken a downturn despite planning consents being in place, as Biffa’s Reality Gap 2016 report has shown.

Catchy terms such as ‘zero waste to landfill’ are good at conveying a general message, being politically safe and popular with wider audiences. But it allows a culture of ‘waste denial’, creating system blockages and making the dream for tomorrow harder to realise.

Nobody wants to talk about landfill any more, but it serves some important roles, not least safe disposal, reclamation of disused quarries and derelict industrial sites, and the generation of renewable energy from landfill gas. 

So while not obvious to the casual observer, there are actually CE elements even within landfill. Thanks to the landfill tax escalator, we have progressed from landfill being the primary option for general waste to recycling and energy recovery now preferred. So the next question is: “In what circumstances is landfill sustainable?”

Inert waste and residues from treatment or energy-from-waste (EfW) plants need landfill disposal. EfW facilities need annual maintenance downtime of several weeks a year during which time waste is diverted back to landfill, as with Biffa’s Redhill landfill site in Surrey.

Specialist or difficult waste streams such as asbestos and filter cakes require safe burial, and some part-completed/ mothballed landfill sites need finishing to enable full reclamation, as originally intended.

Using a resource correctly is a measure of success not failure. After all, that is what the waste hierarchy is about: managing waste at the correct place in the hierarchy.

Perhaps we had better not close the gate on that landfill site just yet. In fact, perhaps it is a good job we did not yet forget those ‘festival wellies’ after all. From being the great unmentionable, we now have a situation where landfill provides the safety net, enabling the rest of the CE to perform its tricks and get the applause.

The recent decision by Air Products to drop the Teesside gasification project prompted some interesting debate regarding the commercial viability of large-scale gasification, and the continued relevance of landfill as a contingency measure when contracts are delayed or fail to materialise.

Biffa still receives a steady flow of enquiries from councils about extensions to current landfill disposal contracts, triggered by problems with affordability of alternatives, delays in mobilisation or even technology or contract failures.

The truth is that landfill is still the most flexible option on the table in terms of input specification, throughput and even in its capacity to be re-mobilised in less time than it takes to construct a new treatment plant.

Like most waste management companies, Biffa’s number of operating landfill sites has dropped significantly, from around 80 at one time to 11 now, although it retains long-term environmental responsibility for closed sites. But the UK needs to face up to the reality of landfill rather than denying its value. Landfill will continue to have strategic importance, albeit in a supporting role.

Jeff Rhodes, head of environment and external affairs at Biffa

Landfill sites

Landfill sites


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