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Landfill mining – filling a gap in the UK’s waste agenda or just creating a big hole?

31 January 2012

Without fail, the word ‘landfill’ appears in the media numerous times a day.

This is because the UK is now highly committed to preventing valuable resources from being carelessly dumped on one of the UK’s unsightly landfill sites. With stringent targets to meet and taxes to pay on waste that is disposed of (rather than recycled or reused), it is perhaps no wonder that ‘landfill’ is so frequently cited.

But we’re now starting to read, and hear, more and more about ‘landfill mining’ – the excavation of old landfill sites so that the buried contents can be reprocessed.

This technique isn’t new – in fact in the last 10 years it has been a topic of great interest throughout Europe, and the USA for example has already mined several sites. So why is landfill mining now gradually stepping to the forefront of the UK’s waste agenda?

The reasons are multifaceted. For example, it’s predicted that by 2018 all available UK landfill sites will have been filled, so this excavation method will free up much-needed space. Furthermore, it is possible to recover and recycle millions of tonnes of irresponsibly landfilled waste, and in many instances use these buried resources as renewable energy fuels.

Metals and plastics can be separated, cleaned and mechanically recycled, and because plastics are made from oil they can even be used to harness energy using gasification or pyrolysis techniques. Even the soils used to cover landfill contents during filling can be recovered (if uncontaminated). Subject to any necessary land remediation, the mined site is then ripe for housing or industrial development, or use as a recreational or natural amenity such as a wildlife centre.

But landfill mining doesn’t receive glowing endorsements from everyone. Critics argue that if landfill space is running out why not focus upon preventing waste from ever being generated, rather than looking at what’s already been landfilled.

The Government’s 2011 waste review quite rightly highlighted ‘prevention’ as the priority within the UK’s waste hierarchy. Landfill should always be the last resort, and without a doubt we shouldn’t create so much waste in the first place – if we’d embraced this approach all along then we wouldn’t even be considering landfill now.

After the war we gradually became a ‘throw away’ society and although efforts are being made to reform our attitudes, unfortunately we were irresponsible for too long. So whilst significant progress has been made in the UK and we are now recycling more than ever before, we still have a long way to go.

For as long as we continue to fill our black bags with household ‘rubbish’ – and whilst we carry on using fossil fuels – we must look at whether we can reverse any damage caused.

A considered, consultative approach is naturally needed because how often does a ‘one size fits all’ ethos reap success? Landfill mining is not a panacea and should only be adopted when appropriate, feasible, environmentally sound and cost-effective to do so.  For example, if a housing conurbation has been built around a capped landfill site it may not be viable or in the environment’s best interests to undertake an excavation; landfill sites are typically unstable for 30 years after closure so the mining of such locations may pose too great a leachate hazard; and as with every waste management process the relative net carbon impact should be considered.

We’re technologically well-equipped, because the quality and ever-growing number of recycling facilities within the UK means we now boast systematic, clean and cost-efficient ways of processing extremely varied materials. In turn, our environmental professionals have the skill-set to decontaminate excavated land and help alleviate health fears.

Cost has always been a deterrent, but as with many business decisions, it is important to analyse whether the benefits outweigh the negative implications. Identifying suitable sites will be difficult and expensive but we need to utilise renewable energy resources before fossil fuels disappear entirely. Furthermore extracted materials such as metals will, when cleaned, have a considerable net worth – even methane (on active landfill sites at least) is a revenue source. For these reasons I feel the process is becoming more economically viable.

Some suggest the technique is only supported by those who will gain financially. I cannot profess the ethicality of everyone within the industry and I understand some will have a particularly vested interest, but I would hope that a commitment to landfill mining actually reflects an understanding of the varied waste, fuel and environmental dilemmas we face.

I echo Caroline Spelman’s vision for a zero waste economy, and applaud the fact that the volume of landfilled waste has fallen by 45% since 2000/01. But unfortunately such attitudes have not always existed, so we now need to rectify past mistakes.

Is it more a case when this technique will become the next big thing on the UK’s waste agenda, rather than if? I certainly think so.

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