The landfill diaries

The UK will fall short of the EU target to recycle 50% of waste from households by 2020 – we’re stuck at around 45%. However, we are on track to meet another target: that no more than 35% of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) will be landfilled by 2020 (against a 1995 baseline). The latest data, published earlier this year, put us at 21% in 2017.

However, this means huge amounts of BMW are still being buried in the ground – 7.4m tonnes in 2017. There, it breaks down anaerobically, generating methane, which is 25 times more potent than CO2 and accounted for 11% of the UK’s greenhouse gas inventory in 2016).

In 2019, it seems foolish to rely on holes in the ground for managing our waste. Almost half the municipal waste sent to landfill is biodegradable – food, paper, garden waste and so on. These are valuable resources. In its resources and waste strategy, the government promised to “explore policies to work towards eliminating all biodegradable waste to landfill” by 2030 – the date by which it also wants no food waste to end up in landfill.

Mandatory food waste collections – also promised in the strategy – will help, and policymakers have threatened to “consult on banning biodegradable material being sent to landfill”. It’s an attractive solution: the most successful countries in terms of recycling tend to be those with landfill bans, and bans provide security for investors in technology such as anaerobic digestion. However, this is no silver bullet. 

“Landfill bans are blunt instruments and care has to be taken to ensure that they don’t simply lead to a switch from landfilling to incineration,” Dominic Hogg, chair of sustainability consultancy Eunomia, told me back in 2011. Scotland had, by then, already committed to a BMW landfill ban as part of its Zero Waste Plan. On 9 May 2012, the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 were passed in Scottish parliament; by 1 January 2021, BMW will be banned from landfill. `

With less than 18 months to go, Hogg’s prophecy looms large. Eunomia research shows that 2.05m tonnes of waste will be subject to the ban, but almost half won’t have a home. If recycling and reduction targets are met, Scotland will face a ‘capacity gap’ of 1.01m tonnes; if not, it could face a 1.28m-tonne problem. Only 14 councils, representing 55.5% of residual household waste (774,000 tonnes), will be ready. `

'In 2019, it seems foolish to rely on holes in the ground for managing our waste'

It’s a costly oversight – economically, environmentally and politically. There is no chance of adding additional energy-from-waste (EfW) capacity in time, for example, so waste may have to be sent to England or overseas. This will bump up carbon emissions and costs (the bill could reach £1.1bn in the period 2021-2030), and goes against the spirit of the ban – the preservation of resources. 

The other option is to extend the deadline while further capacity is built (the irony here being that the Scottish government is, by and large, anti-EfW). Some have speculated that this is what will happen; there’s been no decision yet, leaving landfill operators on tenterhooks. Ministers in Westminster will be watching the fallout closely: the Committee on Climate Change has just called for a UK-wide BMW-to-landfill ban by 2025, a decade earlier than the UK government wants. If an eight-year lead-in to divert two million or so tonnes is tough, imagine six years and more than seven million tonnes?

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, provided the goal is preserving resources rather than fuelling incinerators. Ministers in Scotland maintain that everyone had time to prepare. However, they seem to have set the deadline and then put their heads in the sand, hoping the deadline would be enough to ensure industry and councils sprung into action. It wasn’t. 

If the idea of a ban tickles the fancy of new environment secretary Theresa Villiers, she may want to consider that setting a ban is the easy bit – the hard work comes in developing the policies to deliver it. 


David Burrows is a freelance journalist.


Photo Credit | iStock

David Burrows is a freelance writer, specialising in food and environmental policy;

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