Production of waste is a global problem that won’t just go away on its own so we constantly have to find convenient and suitable ways of disposing of it. Every area of our lives involves getting rid of something, whether it is household rubbish, plastic, paper, metal, commercial waste or anything else for that matter that we simply don’t want or need and wish to discard.
Unfortunately today, most of our waste tends to end up in landfill sites, which is far from ideal. Landfill has an immediate advantage in that it is convenient, however, there are other more serious issues regarding landfill which are not so advantageous to human or animal health or for the environment despite the protection agencies, legislation and monitoring that is in place.
The introduction and steadily rising cost of The Landfill Tax is designed to reduce the amount of waste deposited in landfill by encouraging waste producers to produce less waste and to reuse or recycle mixed waste rather than to dump it. Landfill sites are heavily regulated and monitored by environmental agencies in an attempt to minimise the risk to health and the environment.
What is landfill?
Simply put, landfills are sites, sometimes old quarry sites, where waste is deposited into the ground in order to rot. As each new load of rubbish arrives for disposal, it is pushed down and compacted into the site and then covered with a layer of soil. In order to prevent leakage of toxic material into the surrounding earth and water, the landfill must first be lined in order to seal in the waste.
Once a landfill site has been filled to capacity, it has to be capped or covered and a new site must be found. Usual ways of covering are with a layer of plastic, more soil, a protective covering, sand, more soil and then something like grass. This helps keeps rodents away and minimises the risk of waste gases and other toxins being released into the surrounding land and waterways.
Problems with Landfill
Currently around 80% of our household rubbish ends up in landfill sites and as the amount of rubbish continues year after year, a major problem is that basically, we are running out of space. It isn’t easy to find a new site for landfill either as no one wants to have it in their “back yard” so to speak. Apart from the risk of explosion, landfill sites also give off unpleasant odours and gases and contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can have a negative impact on health even at low doses.
As the rubbish rots in a landfill site, Methane gas is given off and as Methane is a greenhouse gas, this is a major cause for concern. The liner in the landfill site helps to prevent the gas escaping. What often happens is that pipes collect the Methane and carry it to the surface where it can be burned off (a process known as Flaring) or it can be extracted and used as fuel elsewhere.
Leachate is produced in landfill sites from water and liquid draining from the rotting rubbish and again, the liner helps prevent this substance from contaminating the surrounding land and water systems. Pipes will usually collect Leachate and pump it to the surface where it may be re-circulated but if a lot of Leachate is produced it will often be sent to wastewater treatment plants.
Another major problem with landfill is that some non-biodegradable substances such as plastic bags for example, can take maybe hundreds of years to break down. There is no light or oxygen in landfill so rubbish cannot be broken down very quickly.
Despite all the measures in place, several studies have highlighted health risks in relation to landfill sites and the full impact on human, animal and environmental health is still not clear and is being widely debated.
Recycling – a solution
A large proportion of the rubbish ending up in landfill sites is not really rubbish at all as most of it could serve other more useful purposes with a far less damaging effect or could be recycled to produce new products. So, by far the best way to minimise the amount of waste going to landfill and reduce the impact on health and the environment, is to reuse or recycle as much waste as possible.
Currently, only around 7 or 8 per cent of household waste is recycled but if more people were aware of the risks associated with landfill they might be prepared to make more effort to sort and either reuse their waste or recycle it at one of the growing number of recycling depots. One mans trash is another mans treasure as they say so waste not want not.