The Hole Story

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

By the end of the decade there will be only 40-50 landfill sites in the UK, according to estimates – compared with 140 just four years ago, reducing the amount buried from 40 to a mere seven million tonnes. However, landfill will still have a role to play, finds David Burrows

On January 15 this year, Heathfield landfill site in South Devon took its last deliveries after 35 years in service. In that time it has gobbled up eight million tonnes of household and business waste. The closure marked the “end of era”, according to a blog on operator Viridor’s website. Now there will be decades of aftercare as the area is restored for woodland and heathland, while the methane gas will be used to generate energy.

“We’ve got an aggressive three-year plan in place,” explains the firm’s director of business development Chris Jonas. “Four years ago we were processing five million tonnes through energy from waste; by 2020 that will increase to 14 million tonnes. Essentially we will swap landfill for EfW.”

It’s a trend happening right across the sector, he says – and it’s happening fast. Sita UK has suggested its 50-year-old Packington site is a “symbol” of an industry in transition. Located between Birmingham and Coventry, Packington was once the busiest landfill in Europe, taking 2,000 deliveries a day at its peak in the 1980s. According to Sita UK, it has “led the way” in hi-tech solutions to contain, collect and treat pollutants and was the first site to produce electricity from landfill gas. There will be another 20 years of renewable energy to come from the methane, but no more waste will be buried there.

All over the country landfills are being closed, either because they are full or, increasingly, there is not enough waste to keep them open. “Thousands have closed in the last two decades, but few have been opened,” says Peter Jones, a senior consultant with Eunomia. The amount of demand for landfilling of active waste should tail off “quite dramatically” in the next three or four years, he adds.

Closing the gates

In 2012 there were 140 landfill sites in the UK taking around 40 million tonnes of active industrial, commercial and household waste, according to Viridor. By the end of the decade there will be just “40 to 50” sites, it estimates, taking around seven million tonnes of waste – mainly the stuff that can’t be recycled or burned. That’s positive, says Jonas, and it’s a “huge change”.

The move up the waste hierarchy, from burying waste to burning it, makes sense environmentally, but it is economics that have forced companies to change. Landfill tax was £7 per tonne in 1997; the standard rate today is £84.40. It’s been an effective stick: between 1996 (when the landfill tax was introduced) and 2013, the amount of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) landfilled annually in the UK has dropped from 35.6 million tonnes to 9.2 million tonnes.

In other words, the landfill tax has “done its job”, says Mott MacDonald principal waste consultant Craig Wood. “It has driven innovation across the recycling and recovery sectors, making previously uncompetitive waste treatment technologies competitive.” It’s a true example of waste policy achieving its objectives, if you will.

But are we moving too fast?

Some certainly think so. “I’m not convinced closure [at this rate] is the right approach,” says Derek Greedy, chair of the landfill working group at the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). “Those talking about zero waste to landfill are living in cloud cuckoo land.”

He has a point. Many other waste treatment methods generate a residual waste stream that will ultimately require disposal. There are also other materials that can’t yet be economically recovered. What’s more, extractive industries are often left with big holes and planning obligations to infill them and waste remains “the most practical means” of achieving this, explains David Dray, a waste management specialist at Mott MacDonald. “The one certainty is that the landfill site most people think of – the big hole filled with household waste – is on the decline,” he adds.

New era?

Much less certain is what the next era of landfilling will look like. “Without a clear picture of what’s available and where landfill is needed, “we could get in a real mess”, says Greedy. “Incinerators are fine if they work OK, but they work to a capacity. What happens when we get unexpected surges of waste?”

After the floods in Cumbria last winter, for instance, landfill sites took an additional 30,000 tonnes of waste-damaged household goods (the items were mostly classed ‘contaminated’ so they couldn’t be recycled). “You can’t switch landfill on and off because there might be 6,000 cubic metres of air to fill,” says Greedy. “I’m not sure we’ve thought this through.”

Greedy is keen to point out that he isn’t suggesting a return to reliance on landfill, only that it has a role still to play – the importance of which might have been underplayed in the frenzy around ‘zero waste to landfill’. Understanding the future demand for landfill is, however, an inexact science.

“We can’t say how fast they are filling up as the remaining capacity data is not released by the Environment Agency,” explains Adam Read, practice director, resource efficiency and waste management, at Ricardo Energy & Environment.

What we do know is that void space is declining, and that few new sites have been opened or extended in recent years, so there will come a point where some regions are suffering from a lack of availability. “This could result in significant transport costs, which may prove a tipping point for investment in alternative infrastructure in those regions,” Read explains.

Mott MacDonald’s Dray continues: “Traditionally, a landfill site’s primary asset has been void space. Void equals book value. Nonetheless, many sites have found themselves reacting to the decreasing quantities crossing their weighbridges by applying to reduce their planned final levels, directly impacting the performance of the big waste companies. Other operators are splitting their power-generation activities from their core landfill operations, while some are still consolidating.”

Indeed, areas of the country that may have once had three

or four landfills within reach now have only one. It’s unclear whether there is a plan in place to deal with that change in gear. “We’re likely to need some kind of central management in relation to where the remaining landfills are,” says Jones at Eunomia.

Keeping the gates open is proving increasingly difficult, though. The rapid slowdown in BMW has squeezed operators hard, with some charging as little as £10 or £15 per tonne, excluding tax, in order to compete for a piece of a much smaller pie. Less biodegradable material also has a knock-on effect for future generation of biogas, and the long-term consequences of falling profits can be serious, says Mott MacDonald’s Dray.

Caring for old sites

Indeed, once a landfill site is full, operators can’t just hand back their permits and leave. Aftercare is a long-term financial commitment and must be planned for while companies are still making a profit during their operational phase. This financial provision – a pot of money set aside to pay for aftercare and one pollution event – is part of the Landfill Directive and we will soon know whether or not it is working.

The slump in gate fees, combined with the pace of change in diversion from landfill and the early closure of some sites could expose flaws in the system.

Reduced tonnages, for example, can lead to changes in the topography of sites, which could push up planned drainage costs. The storage of leachate to defer management costs could also put some operators in a difficult place, while the reliance on revenues from ‘young’ landfills in a company’s portfolio to pay for aftercare of the ‘old’ ones could also see the financial provision system come unstuck.

“There are an unsettling number of reasons to be concerned that the way FP is being managed may not be fit for purpose,” noted Eunomia MD Mike Brown in a blog last August. “If it proves not to be, abandoned landfills could soon – and for many years ahead – make current issues with abandoned waste sites seem like a very small problem indeed.”

FCC Environment is another company that’s been shutting down its landfills across the country. Of the 135 sites it manages, 30 are currently open. Some were full; others were only part-filled, which can affect the long-term management of the liabilities from the site (the two principal ones being leachate and methane gas). The aim is cost neutrality, says the company’s operations director Chris Ellis, which is easier on some sites than others.

Traditionally, land has been restored and then used for grazing sheep, but there are moves to do much more with the sites, including turning them into nature reserves (see ‘Life after landfill’). Energy crops have attracted a lot of interest, and more recently solar farms. Sita has been assessing its estate for suitable development opportunities, and Viridor is already plugged in. “We’re blessed with quite a good connection to the national grid, so a couple of our closed sites now generate solar energy,” Jonas explains.

Potentially there is a bright future for the UK’s old landfills – and there will be other new technologies providing opportunities for operators to diversify and maintain income during the lengthy aftercare phase. For those that carry on burying, gate fees should rise as big holes in the ground become scarcer, but logistics costs could also increase. There will be business; it just won’t be business as usual.

Life after landfill

Agricultural grassland is still the most common after-use for old landfills, but redeveloping these sites can be an opportunity to provide multi-functional green spaces with benefits for both people and nature conservation, says Bruce Lascelles, business director for environment at Arcadis Consulting.

“In the past, guidance on restoring landfill sites in the UK discouraged the planting of trees because of potential problems with roots penetrating the clay capping, and concerns regarding successful establishment. However, the Landfill Directive has promoted more sustainable solutions and the introduction of regulations that include abolishing the disposal of liquid, clinical and other hazardous waste.

“Indeed, 10 years of investigation by Forest Research has shown that, providing the underlying mineral cap is constructed to standards required by government guidance and there is at least 1.5m of soil or soil-forming material, planting trees on these sites can be an effective land management approach. Poplar, alder, cherry, whitebeam, oak, ash and Corsican pine have been identified as well suited to the landfill environment,” continues Lascelles.

Thurrock Thameside Nature Park (Essex)

• Essex Wildlife Trust nature reserve located on top of the former Mucking Marshes Landfill in Thurrock.

• Visitor centre provides a roof-top viewing platform overlooking Mucking Flats.

• Opportunities for birdwatching, as well as footpaths and cycle ways in 120 acres of nature park, which will expand to 845 acres.

Bidston Moss Community Woodland (Wirral)

• The landfill site at Bidston Moss has undergone major restoration work since closure in 1995.

• The Community Woodland is managed by the Forestry Commission and includes hundreds of trees, wildflower meadows and a pond for anglers; all joined by a network of pathways suitable for pedestrians and cyclists.

• The site is also linked to the National Cycle Network route 56 and a mountain bike track has been installed on the higher slopes.

David Burrows is a freelance environment writer

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