Landfill is rubbish - but is some capacity still needed?

| 15th August 2018
A rubbish truck dumps waste at a landfill site

Dumping rubbish into landfill 

MPCA Photos (Flickr)
MIKE BROWN explains why closing down landfill sites isn’t always the best course environmentally

Landfill has coped, but I think we’re now at the tipping point.

"Landfill is bad. Do everything you can to get waste out of landfill." For the best part of twenty years, the message for waste managers has been clear.

Over that time, it has been a pretty decent rule of thumb, if one that has its limits.

However, I suspect that policy makers may soon have to face up to something that those involved at the sharp end of waste operations may already understand. Certainly, landfill is bad – but no access to landfill might, for a while at least, be even worse. 

Adapting to demand

I realise that I might be accused of waste management heresy at this point, but my key claim is simple. Back in 1997-98, when the Landfill Tax (LFT) was introduced, we buried 50m tonnes of standard rate material.

As we start making inroads into the last 10m tonnes of residual waste going to landfill – and those inroads will be pretty rapid – there will be no business as usual. 

The huge advantage that landfill holds for waste managers is its flexibility. Once built, a landfill site can easily scale up and down the amount of waste it receives.

In a previous role, I designed a site that increased its throughput from 50k to 500k tonnes per year. 

By contrast, an incinerator demands a fairly narrow range of tonnage in order to operate and it can’t easily be switched off and on.

Financial issues

No sensible operator would deliberately build more capacity than is required and so as we move away from landfill, in the event of an unexpected increase in waste, we’ll have a greater need to store it - with all the challenges that brings.

It’s a financial as well as a practical issue. The capital cost of a landfill is deployed through a site's life.

You progressively build cells. You line them, then install leachate and gas collection systems. When a cell is full, you cap it and install gas extraction.

You might spend a few tens of millions overall – but that can be spread across many years, spanning the period before, during and after the cell’s active life.

You can afford to have your cash flow go up and down during that time, in a way that isn’t possible if you’re running a (much more capital-intensive) energy from waste (EfW) facility. 

Until recently, you could divert waste away from landfill however quickly or slowly you wanted without having a fundamental impact on the structure of the market.

Closing time

Year after year, the LFT has made landfill more expensive and less attractive, while other options have become cheaper and easier: waste prevention, recycling, domestic Energy from Waste (EfW), and export have all contributed to diverting waste at a highly unpredictable rate. 

Landfill has coped, but I think we’re now at the tipping point. Throughput is becoming low enough that it may not cover running costs, and there’s little prospect of demand increasing.

The number of sites has fallen dramatically and will continue to do so. Viridor, for example, has decided at a corporate level to eventually close all but three of its 21 UK landfill sites.

After closing four sites in 2016-17 alone, its total number operational sites currently stands at just 11. Once closed, engineering and permitting considerations mean sites can’t cheaply or easily be reopened.

We have to hope that this unexpectedly rapid closure process goes smoothly, although there are reasons to be concerned that there’s trouble in store.

In any case, closing a site earlier than planned can give rise to problems around drainage, landform and landscaping, which can increase the closure costs and add to the aftercare problems encountered.

Shock absorbers

If we do not retain a national network of landfills, it could become far more difficult and expensive to manage a range of foreseeable situations, such as:

- A sudden increase in waste arisings

- A major waste fire, producing thousands of tonnes of soggy waste, unsuitable for thermal treatment

- The breakdown or closure of a major incinerator

- A change in the export market, perhaps because of increased demand for treatment for waste from Eastern Europe.

In the past, almost every part of the country had a landfill site within easy haulage range that would only too gladly rise to the occasion.

Landfill helped to smooth out peaks and troughs in demand. It also provided a control on the price for thermal treatment.

At the moment, there’s a glut of waste in Europe, with export from the UK showing signs of becoming expensive. For now, incinerators can’t put up their merchant prices too high, or waste will head back to landfill.

In a couple of years, that will no longer be the case.

Necessary evil

In the absence of a planned approach to the near demise of landfill, and a strategic approach to making sure we have sufficient capacity to deal with shocks, there will be problems.

In the short term, we’re likely to see hassle and costs for any waste producers trying to find an affordable outlet for non-contracted waste. For a while, at least, there will be waste managers out there ruing the fact that the local landfill closed down.

We all want to see an end to landfill, at least on any meaningful scale.

I’m sure that, eventually, there will be recognition of these issues and that the market will develop systems to store waste safely and broker it so as to match it with treatment capacity.

However, we’re not there yet, and landfill remains a necessary evil until the alternatives are in place. We still need the flexibility that it offers, and a dozen sites across the country simply won’t supply it. 

This Author

Mike Brown is Managing Director of Bristol-based, independent environmental consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting. He has over 30 years’ experience in waste management – 20 of those as an operator – and is a leading expert in the residual waste treatment sector. 

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