How to zero landfill without really trying

Mary Pearson

Mary Pearson

Among the odd pastimes briefly popular during the COVID lockdowns — at least in my post-industrial corner of Greater London — was a type of treasure hunting known as bottle digging.

Local explorers, having little else to do, forged new rambling routes through the woods and scrub along the canal, including a temporary path across what looked to be a disused pasture. What it was, in fact — as evidenced by heaps of decorative bottles, patent medicine jars, glass ink wells and broken crockery spilling out of trenches dug all over the surface — was an old landfill.

The landfill century

Landfills have been used for waste disposal throughout history. In the Victorian era they scaled up dramatically in line with an accelerated production of goods. The industrial revolution and mass production ushered in the first real age of disposable packaging, mostly in the forms of durable glass and ceramics prized by the bottle diggers, or of long-decomposed paper and wood.

Landfilling continued to be the main form of waste disposal in the UK over the 20th century, but the volume as well as the composition of rubbish changed significantly through the years. A proportion of materials that end up as landfill contain toxic substances or develop into harmful substances over time through chemical changes and decomposition processes, becoming a major source of environmental pollution.

Zero landfill in context

To address these problems, many organisations have set zero landfill targets. There is good news for these organisations. As the DEFRA figures below indicate, very little waste in the UK is now landfilled.

Perception lag

Less than eight per cent of waste in England is currently sent to landfill. But as recently as the year 2000, that figure was a whopping 79 per cent. This is likely the cause of a continuing focus on landfill as a major problem. The current reality, however, is that waste disposal is dominated by incineration (48.2 per cent) and recycling or composting (41.4 per cent).

It’s good to see that over the last decade or so recycling and composting have become mainstream methods of waste treatment. This includes anaerobic digestion, which, as our friends at client organisation Bio Capital can confirm, has numerous benefits including renewable energy generation, diversion of organic materials from landfill, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, reduction of odours and pathogens, and production of nutrient-rich soil amendments.

Burning controversies

The mainstreaming of combustion to deal with waste in the UK is, however, a worrying trend. Despite claims that waste incineration is a sustainable source of renewable energy, burning waste creates not only pollution but also perverse incentives around waste handling. As the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) explains:

“Municipal waste is non-renewable, consisting of discarded materials such as paper, plastic and glass that are derived from finite natural resources such as forests that are being depleted at unsustainable rates. Burning these materials in order to generate electricity creates a demand for waste and discourages much-needed efforts to conserve resources, reduce packaging and waste and encourage recycling and composting.”

While these megatrends in waste management can make it challenging for organisations to set responsible targets around waste, all good waste handling is based on prevention, reuse, recycling, and recovery.

If you need help with getting a clear view of your waste streams and volumes and your options for waste target-setting in the context of a sustainability strategy, get in touch.

Get in touch or book a call