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End of Landfill in the UK? Is Zero Waste Really Coming Any Time Soon?

Protesters at a  Conference – CC BY-NC-ND by pennstatenews

Reliance on landfill in the UK is decreasing, but is zero waste to landfill and the a real prospect in the foreseeable future?

The latest waste data from the Environment Agency (EA) shows that reliance on landfill in England and Wales continues to decrease, with significant increases in inputs to other treatment facilities, particularly materials recovery and incineration plants.

The total amount of waste has not changed markedly, but landfill deposits have fallen slowly, but steadily since 2001, since the start of the century.

That has been achieved by rising inputs to licensed treatment facilities and with government investment programmes set-up largely under Labour governments up to the commencement of Conservative rule in 2010, have increased significantly.

Figure 3.2: Local Authority collected waste management, England, 2000/01 – 2014/15, below shows the downward trend very clearly, and by simple projection of the current trend it would seem that zero waste to landfill will take place in about 7 years’ time, say 2023. The full report can be viewed on this UK Government page.

Waste tonnages sent to landfill recently from UK Gov website

The general public truly hate to have a landfill anywhere near their homes, so isn’t that must be great news! Also, the many UK landfills already in existence, pose a massive threat of water pollution in the future. So, it would be madness for society to continue to create more and more of them, into the future.

But is this apparent victory, one which will really happen in the UK?

The question is the obvious one of: is this wonderful achievement really so close to actually coming about? Can it be true that the UK will never need more landfills?

The End of Landfill – Can the Trend of Falling Waste to Landfill Continue and All UK Landfill Cease in 2023?

CC BY by cogdogblog

Sadly, the advent of conservative governments with their application of an austerity, and anti-PPI Contract policy in 2010/11, hit new waste management contracts hard. The result has been that the Labour government’s investment programme which took about 10 years in the planning largely ceased by 2012. The new waste diversion capacity is now being seen in the figures. But, as these projects take 5 to 10 years it is the fruits of withdrawing that investment in new projects within local authorities, which are now being seen in the declining landfill waste tonnages. But, not for much longer, and this rapid drop is now almost spent.

The lead time for new landfill diversion capacity is long, and new investment will be needed and when this will start is not known. That means that the effects of austerity policies, have not so far been seen in the waste figures. But, they will start to be seen increasingly from now on, in a stagnating figure for waste sent to landfill.

While writing this article the author was unable to find any UK government data with any predictions of how low the annual tonnage of waste disposed to landfill will be in 2023, but the author would hazard a guess that a significant tonnage will still be being sent to landfill in 2023.

This lack of direction from the present government needs to be corrected, with new investment started soon, if the government are going to meet the expectations of the UK public who are generally very much in favour of a “zero waste” to landfill policy.

It remains to be seen whether the present UK government has any intention to resurrect previous promises for “zero waste” in England and Wales.

The End of Landfill – Does the UK Have as Much Landfill Capacity as it Will Ever Need, or will The UK Soon Need New Landfills?

The UK Government/ EA estimated back in 2008 that, given the reduced demand for landfill and a small increase in capacity, there was an average of seven years’ tipping space for England and Wales. (CIWM Members Journal article, May 2008 Edition, page 16).

That would have meant that there would be no landfill capacity left in the UK, by 2015. Clearly that never happened, and there is still no problem with landfill capacity in most UK areas. Few, if any sizeable landfills have been opened since 2008 in the UK, and yet there is still plenty of landfill capacity available. That estimate must have been widely inaccurate.

Naturally, the number of landfills needed is not equally spread across the countries. The “London effect” means that the East of England, London and the South East operate almost as a single waste market and together they had, even at that time, only a predicted five years’ of tipping space left. However, again this must have been well below the actual capacity available, as there are no forecasts of imminent lack of landfill space throughout the south-east of the UK.

Capacity is still thought to be greatest in the Midlands and North East, with Wales just above the average.

Future capacity is a function of waste generated then sent to landfill and available facilities. We know that waste arisings have stabilised and that less is being sent to landfill, so what do we know about the number of existing facilities and new ones coming on-stream?

Of the near 9000 waste management licences current in 2006, less than 20 percent were for landfill. The numbers are even starker when considering active licences; less than 600 licensed landfills were active in the period, just 10 percent of the total facilities. The figures have dropped substantially further, since that date.

The EA claimed in 2008, that there was, and it is likely that there would continue to be a small increase in landfill capacity, but there is little evidence of this in their figures. Only five new landfill licences issued in 2006. That was an extremely small increase when compared with the past, but the need for more landfill capacity will continue at a lower, but nonetheless significant level after 2023.

It is unfortunate to have to conclude therefore, that due to the need for still further investment in waste processing, waste minimisation, and re-use plus recycling, many new landfills will be needed beyond 2023. Zero waste in the UK, is not likely now, before 2030, and even to be achieved then would require this conservative government to start investing again at a high level of spending in new local authority waste processing facilities in this parliament.

That is highly unlikely, especially given the high state of uncertainty throughout the UK surrounding the UK’s pending exit from the European Union. Perhaps a greater understanding of the driving factors behind the decline in landfill capacity and the reduction in waste arisings would leave us better able to predict the future?

In the past 40 years, the UK has been dragged forward in its waste management practices by the other EU nations, especially France and Germany, which began investing much sooner in cleaner recycling and incineration technologies than the UK. The EU as a driving force toward “Zero Waste” will disappear, as soon as the UK leave the EU. Only UK public opinion will be left to drive the UK through those last all-important steps to realise full “zero waste” to landfill.

BMW sent to landfill shown on a chart

Will public opinion alone be enough, post EU membership, to see the UK adopt an internationally acceptable waste management policy? That is very much an open question now.

Public opinion expressed against all waste facility development, landfill and incineration in particular, and the complexities of the planning system, has inevitably resulted in a sharp reduction in applications and consequently licences/permits for landfill, since 2008. But, probably the biggest slow-down in new landfill applications has been the inability of the waste management companies to make a good return on their investment in landfills, due to excess landfill capacity.

That will probably change over the coming years, as landfills fill-up and are not replaced, and competition between landfill operators, for the available waste going to landfill, reduces.

Financial pressures, including landfill tax, and a greater reliance on options towards the top of the hierarchy, as well as better management of our resources, have given rise to a significant reduction in commercial and industrial wastes disposed to landfill. However, the big reductions seen in the later part or the 2000’s, which were largely a result of the commercial and industrial sectors realising that landfill tax had risen to the extent that landfill disposal was costing them more than recycling have now been exhausted.

The result of the “landfill tax elevator” was that the great majority of companies started carrying out their own in-house recycling, in conjunction with the onward disposal of their segregated waste streams to recycling companies. The drop in annual waste sent to landfill from that effect has now been largely worked out of the system.

The question is still, (as was the case in the CIWM’s 2008 article), will the rate of decline of both numbers of landfills and waste deposited in them result in an end to landfill in the foreseeable future?

The simple answer is, not in the short-term and, to misquote Mark Twain, reports of the death of landfill are greatly exaggerated.

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