What happens when our landfills are full?

Landfill Mining

What happens when our landfills are full?

As space in the UK’s landfills runs out, the race is on to find environmentally friendly alternatives

The race is on to find an alternative to landfill

Since the 1990s the number of working landfill sites in Britain has fallen from 1,500 to below 250.  In 2007 the Local Government Association reported that in Britain a combined area the size of Warwick was taken up with landfill. In July last year it warned that the country will run out of space for its rubbish by 2018 unless new sites are found.

The real nail in the coffin for landfill is the European Union’s landfill directive (first issued in 1999 but ramped up over the years with increasingly ambitious targets), which will impose fines of up to £1 million a day if we send more than 50 per cent of our waste to landfill by 2013 or 35 per cent by 2020 (currently we send 48 per cent to landfill).

As a result, disposing in landfill in the UK is subject to an escalating tax – in April this year the tax rose to £56 a ton and it is set to hit £80 a ton in 2014. The UK produces about 280 million tons of waste a year. Only Spain, Greece and Ireland send more to landfill per head of population. Forty per cent of our household waste is recycled or composted and 12 per cent incinerated for electricity, with the rest – 680lb per capita each year – going to landfill. The EU average is 415lb; Germany’s rate is 7lb. (Germany sends the least amount of waste to landfill in Europe, and has high rates of recycling, but it has achieved this by moving to 35 per cent incineration.)


Until a few years ago, there was only one significant alternative to landfill: incineration. Incineration is highly effective – you can generate a lot of power from huge loads of rubbish and don’t need to do much work sorting it all out in advance. Moreover, incinerators are cleaner and more efficient than they used to be.

For the big players, incineration is the main replacement for landfill. If the UK is to meet its EU targets, we will need to add more than 20 million tons of ‘thermal capacity’, the equivalent of 35 mega incinerators.

Unsurprisingly, environmental groups aren’t fans of incineration. According to Friends of the Earth, incinerators are considerably worse on carbon efficiency than even coal-fired power stations. It seems perverse that developed economies – so keen in other ways to kill CO2-belching industries – are looking to incineration as an alternative to landfill.

To be viable, incinerators need to be big, which means waste must be brought in from far away. And once built, regardless of changing circumstances, the contracts that local authorities have signed with the waste firms mean that you have to keep feeding the monster.

Mechanical Biological Treatment


Organic material, such as food scraps, goes for composting. Then via a series of devices such as magnets and wind sifters, the ferrous waste, aluminium, recyclable polymers and card are respectively removed for recycling. What you are left with – plastic bags and other non-recyclable waste – is either sent to landfill or burnt in cement kilns.


Plasma Technology

Plasma technology is about superheating waste that might other­wise go to landfill in an oxygen-deprived environment, producing a clean synthesis gas that can be used to power engines and create electricity. Unlike incineration, the process leaves behind little ash, instead producing a lava that cools to form a black glass-like substance known as Plasmarok.