July 15th, 2016
by Chris Cullen
To hear many waste commentators talk, one would think that a huge proportion of the nation’s waste is still being sent to landfill. For example, as recently discussed on Isonomia, it is not uncommon to hear calls for landfill bans for specific materials, as if this would automatically entail that they were recycled, and we are frequently told of the benefits of getting waste ‘out of landfill’.
While this narrative may be convenient for public engagement, it’s pretty wide of the mark in representing the reality of the situation. When we look at the figures, it quickly becomes apparent that the role of landfill has been rapidly diminishing in English waste management in recent years.
Between 2006 and 2014, the number of operational landfill sites in England declined at an average rate of 6% per annum. There were 278 sites taking non-hazardous waste in 2006, but just 160 sites remained open in 2014 – the last year for which data is available. That’s a 42% reduction in landfill numbers in less than a decade.
The most dramatic drop came between 2008 and 2009, when a staggering 21% of landfills closed down. The closures are largely due to the impact of the Landfill Tax escalator, exacerbated by a reduction waste arisings as a result of the economic recession. With the former making it clear that landfilling would rapidly become more expensive, and the latter meaning there was simply less waste to landfill, such a plummet is not surprising.
Over the period from 2006 to 2014, the amount of residual waste sent to landfill decreased at an average rate of 11% per annum, from just over 41 million tonnes to 15.5 million tonnes – a total fall of 62%.
The decline is continuing, with just 12.3 million tonnes sent to landfill in 2015. With another c.5.0 million tonnes per annum of residual treatment capacity under construction across the UK, and an increase in RDF Exports due to demand from European facilities for waste derived fuels likely to continue, the trend of decline is ongoing, which will put further pressure on those landfills still in operation.
Does size matter?
Digging a little deeper into the data, we can take a look at the ownership of the landfills which have been closing. Are big players scaling back their landfill operations as they diversify into other treatment technologies, or are smaller operators finding it difficult to stay in business?
It turns out that there’s a fairly even split between the closures attributable to the largest six waste companies and those attributable to the rest. The ‘big six’ of Biffa, Cory, FCC, Suez, Veolia and Viridor collectively reduced their number of sites by 43% from 2006 to 2014. This is almost identical to the 43% overall reduction figure.
It’s less easy to tell the percentage of sites closing which belonged to smaller operators, because some of them were acquired by the big six over the same time frame. However, with that caveat, we can say that the number of sites owned by organisations other than the ‘big six’ fell from 175 in 2006 to 85 in 2014, a reduction of 51%. While this figure is only indicative, it suggests that the rate of landfill closures has been broadly uniform across waste businesses of different sizes. What we are seeing is a general change in the disposal landscape, affecting operators of all sizes.
Had our fill?
The declining number of active landfills shows that there has been a monumental and broadly positive shift in English waste management in a relatively short space of time, with higher levels of recycling and the rise of energy from waste moving material up the waste hierarchy. However, despite the change being the direct result of policies such as the Landfill Tax, it is less clear that the consequences of this momentous change have been planned for properly.
After decades of dependence on landfill, we are now left with the challenge of having a great many sites with little, but not quite nothing, to do. Closed sites still require proper aftercare to manage their ongoing environmental impacts – and when sites close earlier than planned, it can increase costs and make aftercare more difficult, whilst limiting the resources available to fund it. The Environment Agency (along with Natural Resources Wales, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency) needs to make sure closed sites are properly resourced and managed to prevent environmental damage.
Meanwhile, there is also a need to retain a network of landfill sites to receive waste, such as contaminated soil, bulky waste, and other active waste that isn’t always suitable for incineration. At present, there seems to be no plan to make sure we have strategically located sites around the country to meet this ongoing requirement.
The decline of landfill may be welcome, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we can forget about it. New planning is required to address the new shape of residual waste management, including plans for all wastes displaced by the closure of landfill sites, and for the closed sites themselves, before we start to celebrate.