Sunday, 1 June 2008

No shortage of landfill in the UK

NB This piece has been updated 5th Feb 2011 - updated figures HERE

The Saudi religious police, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, keep Saudi society under strict control by patrolling for such sins as women drivers or man and women talking to eachother in public. In 2002 14 Saudi schoolgirls were trapped in a burning building; nearby men were prevented from rescuing them by the religious police because they were not related. The girls died. Today in the UK we are starting to feel similar stifling and suffocating effects from the Bin Police. Overfill your bin, put a ketchup bottle in the wrong bin, leave it out an hour too early and you run the risk of a swingeing fine and possibly a criminal conviction. Plus the council's refuse manager can use RIPA to tap your phone and read your emails to check whether you boast to your aunt of hiding cabbage leaves in your non-food waste receptacle, or putting tetrapaks in your recycling bin.

The justification for this most illiberal and repressive enforcement of the trivial is that it's necessary, that the UK has run out of landfill capacity and we must reduce and recycle or die. Charging for refuse by the kg will be trialled before long; a splendid wheeze to extract even more money from the settled middle classes who pay their council tax by direct debit and won't notice an extra tenner a month going out, but howling lunacy if applied to the sort of drifting bedsit population that pays for its utilities through pre-payment meters.

We have always traditionally disposed of our waste through landfill, whether a midden at the bottom of the garden or a worked-out quarry. It's cheap, and as long as only inert waste is deposited near the water table, environmentally friendly. Now personally I loathe plastic packaging waste, and strongly support economic recycling; of course we should collect and re-use metals, glass and paper. But broken crockery, cat litter, paint tins, old furniture and the like still need to go somewhere, and a hole in the ground in which they can slowly degrade to their natural mineral elements is about the best place.

So just how critical is the UK's supply of landfill sites? Well, not very at all. We quarry about 260 million tonnes (mt) a year of land minerals, mostly limestone, granite and sand and gravel, plus 9mt a year of opencast coal. In terms of volume, that equates to new holes with a capacity of about 110 million cubic metres (mcm) a year. Our existing licenced holes have a capacity of about 700 mcm. We produce less than 100mcm of waste and refuse a year. The system, as scientists would say, is therefore in equilibrium.

There are regional imbalances, of course. In order to counter the south-east minerals 'drag', following the recommendations of the Albemarle Report many years ago, a policy of licencing superquarries in Scotland and the north and transporting their products directly by sea or rail to the south-east means that Scotland and the north have more holes than waste to fill them with. And the landfill 'push' from London which places additional demands on sites in the home counties means that the M25 area has more waste than holes. The solution to this is patently obvious. Why have ships and rail wagons returning to Scotland empty?

No. No natural problem, really. The 'crisis' has been created artificially by a combination of EU blind stupid regulation and the Labour government's cupidity. Tyres, for example, are now classed as 'hazardous' waste in the same class as hospital waste and strange glowing chemicals. Artificially witholding waste disposal licences from perfectly suitable holes in the ground creates an artificial shortgage. And the government have not only imposed an aggregates levy that taxes minerals coming out of the holes but a landfill tax that taxes waste going back in to fill them up. Landfill tax is currently £32 / tonne and will rise to £40 t next year and £48 t the year after. Local councils have to pay these charges, but receive nothing extra from government and are restricted from raising council taxes generally to pay for it. Small wonder, really, that the Bin Police have taken off in such a big way and that councils in London are looking at 10p/kg charge to cover not only these and fuel costs but the costs of compliance with Ken's emission charging scheme.

There's no crisis. Just Brown's stealth taxes.

DEFRA landfill capacity pages
UK Minerals Yearbook 2006


Jeremy Jacobs said...

"Just Brown's stealth taxes".

He wont be around for very long

Mark Wadsworth said...

Sweet! Is that 100 mcm of waste just domestic or all waste? I thought domestic waste was about 30 mcm (half a ton each) but that's only about 10% to 20% of all waste by volume. The biggest share is construction and demolition.

Philip Thomas said...

Great post. Most persuasive thing I've read on waste since Bjorn Lomborg did some maths in The Skeptical Environmentalist.

I've long held that landfill is a great idea because what is not viable to recycle now will most likely be in the future. I can see us mining landfills years from now so burying it in areas already used to quarrying and mining should be ideal.

Bob Piper said...

...and the sad thing is, Jeremy Jacobs probably thinks David Cameron would change one dot or comma of the recycling directives.

Poor dear.

Anonymous said...

Your figures may not be correct. According to this:
220 million tonnes of waste are produced each year in the UK. If this is right, and assuming - as seems likely - that a tonne of waste takes up more than half a cubic metre, there must be more than 110 million cubic metres of waste produced per year, and probably much more. The article linked to above gives an annual reduction in landfill capacity of 65 million cubic metres.

Raedwald said...

Anon -

Uhm, no. 220mt are produced - this isn't the same as the tonnage that needs to go to landfill. Construction and demolition waste accounts for 110mt of this, but most is recycled or spread as inert material on site. DEFRA's latest figures are that only 28mt of the 100mt go to landfill.

Household waste is about 35mt pa and commercial waste about 30mt pa, and again an increasing amount of both is being recycled.

As for density, well, construction and demolition waste will be over 2t/m3 so that 28mt will be less than 14mcm of landfill space.

The problem is not the shortage of landfill opportunities - there is no shortage - but the shortage of licenced landfill sites.

Thanks for picking this up, though.

Mr Henderson ("Anonymous") said...

Your point about the proportion of waste which does not go to landfill is, I agree, very important; without it, on your figures, there would be another 82mt of building waste alone to dispose of. I take it that you are not arguing against recycling.

It would be useful if you could give your sources. For example, the most recent Defra figures I have found show production of only 90 million tonnes of construction and demolition waste (in 2005). This is at:

The figures are certainly confusing. This source:
gives total waste as 335 mt for 2004. Rather a lot more than 220 mt.

Irritating that all the sources I can find seem to give the quantities by weight rather than volume.

It is also necessary to know on what grounds potential landfill sites are typically rejected, and by whom. Is it the case that so many of the rejections are unreasonable as to make a material difference? For instance, there is a large granite quarry on the north side of Loch Linnhe. The granite is taken by ship to North America; there is no surfaced road to the quarry, and the route to the area is by ferry and winding highland roads. Filling it with waste might not be a cheap option.

Pat said...

A small additional point. In the south east there are a significant number of sea walls that could do with raising. in the '80s essex raised sea walls at Leigh on sea and Mersea using approximately 50% domestic waste- and most of the rest was from construction. Even given a local shortage of Landfill in the south east there isn't really a problem finding somewhere to put it. Indeed if farmland were to become again as valuable as it was in the 1700s someone would probably be digging material to reclaim farmland from the Sea.
As an alternative, most of it is combustible and hence could be used for local heat and power plants, producing something far more valuable than current pretend recycling activities do reducing haulage costs (including the environmental cost from refuse trucks going miles to the nearest licensed tip) leaving denser fill material for use as such, and saving everyone the trouble of washing plastic bottles.

Anonymous said...

Scotland disnae want yer rubbish