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The Negative Effects of Landfills

Government guidelines specify that food waste recycling is preferable to sending food waste to landfills. However, other waste, both commercial as well as domestic, does get sent there.


We have all heard about landfills and that they are not good for the environment. However, most of us don’t really know why they are bad. So, let us address all the questions you might have about this form of waste management.

What is a landfill?

Landfills are designated sites where waste that cannot be reused, recycled, or otherwise destroyed is sent. They are one of three systems of waste management, where the other two are:

1. Recycling via:

  • Anaerobic digestion
  • Composting

2. Incineration

Landfill sites can be of two types - one where the rubbish is put in a hole in the ground until the hole is full, and the other where it is placed on the ground and allowed to build up.

Once a landfill site is filled to capacity, the rubbish may sometimes be covered with soil and converted into a green space. Often, it is left without any further development. Recently, there have also been efforts to mine old landfills for materials that can be recycled.

Why do we have landfills?

You might think that landfills are a recent phenomenon, but the concept is actually much older. The idea of landfills originated in Crete in 3000 BC.

That is because landfills do fulfil an important function. Some rubbish cannot be reused in any other way, and there needs to be an allocated site where it can be disposed of in a safe manner.

However, land is a limited resource and too much rubbish ending up in landfills means, eventually, we would run out of space.

Are landfills sustainable?

Landfills are not sustainable, especially if the amount of waste being sent to these sites is very high.

The problem with large volumes of waste is that:

  • It needs more space,
  • The biodegradable materials don’t degrade properly due to lack of aeration,
  • They produce greenhouse gases (GHG's) like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4)
  • And, certain materials, like plastics or glass, take decades to break down

That means that once a landfill site is full, it would take years and years for the site to become usable again.

Since land is a limited resource in the UK, there may come a time when we might not have enough space for new landfill sites.

The other, more immediate problem is the production of GHGs. Greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change, and we have already reached a point where we need to take action against it.

That is why we need to be very discerning about what gets sent to these sites and prioritise other forms of waste management.

What are the environmental effects of landfills?

Landfills, whilst necessary, do lead to several environmental problems. Some of these are merely inconvenient, but others have a more lasting impact.

Here is a list of some of the environmental effects of landfills.

Landfills look (and smell) bad

A landfill is a large area of land that is filled with household as well as commercial rubbish. This rubbish rots and degrades. As a result, the site looks and smells terrible. That can be uncomfortable for people who live in the vicinity.

Loss of habitat

Since landfills are both an eyesore and smell awful, they are situated away from built-up areas. It is usually wild areas that were cleared for the purpose. In this process, the area loses the natural flora as well as the wildlife that depended on it.

Impacts the local wildlife

As we mentioned earlier, clearing out land to create a landfill means all the birds and animals that were indigenous to the area are displaced.

Moreover, they are replaced by scavengers, like rats, gulls, and crows. Whilst smell and appearance are relatively minor impacts on the area, the loss of green cover and habitat for wildlife is a more serious and longer-term effect.

Toxicity in the soil and water bodies

There is a great variety of rubbish that ends up in landfills. Most of it is from construction and demolition, followed by mineral waste from mining and quarrying.

Next is household waste, which consists of food waste, paper and cardboard, plastics, and glass. The rest of it also contains electronic waste.

This waste, especially electronics, can contain dangerous metals, like mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead, among other things.

Similarly, plastics also leach out potentially toxic chemicals. These toxins get into the soil and can be a hazard for years, affecting how the land can be used in the future.

Additionally, when it rains, the rainwater dissolves and flushes the chemicals to create a toxic liquid called leachate. Leachates are generally collected and recirculated into the landfill. However, some can escape into the soil and get into nearby water bodies, polluting them.

Greenhouse gases

In addition to the liquid and solid toxins, landfills also produce gases as a by-product. Unfortunately, the main ones are CH4 and CO2, which are GHGs. These contribute to global warming and climate change, which is one of the most significant issues of our times.

Fire risk

In addition to trapping the sun’s heat inside the earth’s atmosphere, methane is also ‘hot’ in another way. It burns very easily (which also makes it an excellent biofuel).

Unfortunately, the process of decomposition produces heat, with temperatures reaching 80o to 100o C. This means that, unless carefully managed, landfills pose a fire risk. Even when temperatures are carefully managed, there is still the possibility of a fire starting due to lightning strikes, arson, or hot waste.

The problem with landfill fires is they need to be controlled as quickly as possible because they spread like… well… wildfire. And, sometimes, they can’t be put out with water and need foam-based retardants, which then become a part of the pollutants.

Costs money to maintain

In order to ensure that a landfill does not pollute the soil, water bodies, and the air, the site needs to be prepared carefully. Then, it needs to be maintained, where the leachates are managed, and fires are prevented or put out.

Finally, once the site is filled, it has to be ‘finished’ so it does not remain an eyesore. All these processes cost money which the taxpayers pay.

What are the alternatives to landfills?

Unfortunately, landfills are a necessary part of waste management. However, there are measures in place to ensure that only waste that couldn’t be processed in any other way ends up there.

The best way, of course, is to ensure that there is no waste. That means prevention, which can mean better management of materials, so there is very little wastage. We could also repurpose waste that we would otherwise be thrown out.

However, there will always be some waste, which will need to be managed. But, does it all need to be sent to landfills?

As we mentioned earlier, there are two other waste management methods that should be considered before dumping waste into landfills.

Incinerating

Incineration is the process of burning the waste and using the heat produced for energy. Certain organic products burn quite readily and will produce heat, which can be captured. However, this method produces CO2 as well as other polluting or noxious gases. And again, it is limited by how well the waste burns.

Metals, for example, won’t burn. Plastics, on the other hand, will burn but can produce harmful gases based on their constituents.

Food waste, while organic and safe to burn, often contains too much water, making it inefficient to burn for energy.

A more efficient way of recovering energy from food and other organic waste is anaerobic digestion.

Recycling - Composting

Composting is the process of breaking down, or decaying, of plant matter so it can be used as a fertiliser. Plant matter includes leaves (and grass clippings), branches, flowers, fruits, and bark. However, plant-based products like paper, cardboard, and natural fibres can also be composted.

The process of composting uses natural bacteria that feed on organic material. However, unlike anaerobic digestion, these bacteria need plenty of oxygen in order to feed. They also need water, but too much water means not enough air being circulated.

Therefore, a composting pile needs plenty of aeration, as well as moisture control.

The bacteria also require a balance of carbon and nitrogen. Green leaves and grass, for example, are rich in nitrogen. A pile of just these would not compost properly.

Similarly, dried branches, cardboard, paper, and bark chips are rich in carbon. Just like the green waste, these alone will not be sufficient. In order to create compost from this type of waste, we need to create a balance between the two.

However, non-plant-based materials (as well as certain plant-based materials, like oils) cannot be composted. That means they need another form of waste management.

Recycling - Anaerobic digestion

Whilst composting requires air circulation, anaerobic digestion breaks down organic matter in the absence of air. So, the end result is a biofertiliser too. But, in addition, it also produces CH4, which is a biofuel.

This biofuel is an efficient way of generating energy. Whilst the energy generated depends on the materials that are being digested, on average, one tonne of waste can produce 300 kWh of energy.

Also, the remaining digestate is used as a biofertiliser, helping farmers replenish the nutrients in the soil, reducing the need to use chemical fertilisers.

Of these methods, anaerobic digestion is the most efficient and cost-effective. That is because it is relatively cheap to undertake, and produces a viable fuel and fertiliser in the process.

So, if you are a business owner looking for an efficient way to manage your organic waste, why not get in touch with us? We will transform your waste into renewable energy.

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