In this blog, Geoff Eyre-Walker takes a look at the reducing landfill capacity in the UK, what still needs to be done and what the future holds. If you have any questions about this blog or would like to find out more, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Landfill decline in the UK
Landfill has been the conventional method of waste disposal in the UK for decades, but due to efforts to develop more sustainable and environmentally conscious methods of using our waste, landfill demand has declined in more recent years(Jones and Tansey, 2015). Since the 1990s the number of active landfill sites in Britain has dropped to under 250 from 1,500 (De Castella, 2011). In 2006, over 75% of Britain’s waste was directed to landfill in comparison to under half in 2016 (Environmental Services Association, 2016). Britain’s landfills have been closing due to lack of financial viability and a lack of space for additional waste. Waste disposed of at landfills declined by 1 million tonnes in 2016/17 in comparison to the previous financial year, taking it down to 4.1 million tonnes (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2017). The key driver for landfill decline was the introduction of the Landfill Tax in 1996, which incentivised waste companies to reduce the waste sent to landfill as they would be taxed at a given rate per tonnage of waste sent there (Elliot, 2016).
The decline in landfill is perhaps symbolised by the closure of Packington in the West Midlands, once one of the busiest such sites in Europe. The company who ran the site, SITA UK, had 22 operational sites in 2010 with an annual waste input of 3.5 million tonnes but this has fallen by 2015 to 13 sites and 1.5 million tonnes respectively, with three sites with a waste acceptance of 0.5 million tonnes expected to close by the end of the decade (Kavanagh, 2015).
Figure 1. Packington landfill in use in the 1980’s before its closure (Hicks, 2015).
Increasing waste capacity gap
The UK’s landfill capacity is diminishing. In 2017, it was calculated that England has 6.8 years left of non-hazardous landfill capacity (Tolvik Consulting, 2017). This contributes to an accumulative waste capacity deficit. An Environmental Services Association report in 2017 claimed that by 2030 there will be a household waste capacity deficit of 6 million tonnes. Although, previous predictions haven’t been accurate (Grice, 2010).
While the decline in landfill capacity in the UK can be viewed as positive for long-term, sustainable, environmentally conscious waste treatment, landfill capacity is declining at a faster rate than the growth of alternative waste treatment methods are growing, thus widening a waste capacity gap (Scott, 2017). Although the growth in alternative methods and decline in landfill use may not be independent from one another as it could be argued that landfill closures are in part due to recycling, incineration and anaerobic digestion increases (Kavanagh, 2015).
Statistics released earlier this year indicate that year on year increases in household recycling rates are tailing-off and that the UK may miss its 2020 target of a 50% household recycling rate (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2018 and Edie, 2018). Additionally, it has been claimed that 13 million tonnes of combustible waste is not being used for energy generation as the facilities are not there to support it (Moore, 2018). These factors are likely to increase inputs to landfill thus exacerbating the reduction in UK landfill capacity.
Current circumstances have the potential to increase the waste capacity gap. In addition, the recent announcement by China of a ban on importing plastic waste could redirect additional plastic waste to the UK’s landfills. Since 2012 the UK has shipped over 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste, which is two thirds of its plastic waste exports, to China and Hong Kong(Laville, 2017). It’s reported that HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) figures show that from January to April in 2018, exports of UK plastic waste to Malaysia have tripled. Given the timing of this increase it can interpreted as a reaction to the China plastic ban (Cole, 2018). Furthermore, the UK may be less able to export waste to Europe, depending on future relations with Europe after Brexit. This could be significant for managing the waste capacity gap as a lot of UK waste is exported to Europe, with three million tonnes of waste exported to Europe in 2016 where it is used as fuel (Suez, 2017). Exporting waste overseas for recovery/recycling has aided the UK waste management sector in meeting recycling and recovery targets (Balch, 2014).
Plastic gains needed
There are particular gains to be made to reduce waste and to find more sustainable waste management strategies with plastic, which is predicted to continue to be exported in large quantities abroad. Resource recovery company predictions suggest that $120 million of investment was needed for the UK to recycle 80% of its plastic (Lugar, 2018 and Danigelis, 2018). This is particularly alarming as it has been reported by Eunomia Research & Consulting that the UK grossly underestimates its plastic waste production with official figures stating plastic recycling rates are approximately 39% when they may be as low as 29% (Cole, 2018).
While the environmental impacts of landfill are widely seen as negative, the UK does not at present have the infrastructure to discontinue landfill or to stop exporting waste abroad (Rabl et al., 2008, Weber et al., 2011, Suez, 2017 and Brand et al., 2017). It appears the waste capacity dilemma is a conflict of short-term waste management requirements against long-term waste management requirements. With the determination to reduce landfill comes the need to encourage alternative waste treatment methods to help minimise the waste capacity gap in the long-term. The landfill tax was implemented to make alternative waste management methods more economically viable and that is what has happened. However, other waste treatment methods still haven’t grown fast enough to replace declining landfills and a gap has formed, which may force us to divert waste abroad until alternative waste treatment methods have the capacity to treat the UK’s waste.
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