Saturday, 5 February 2011

No shortage of landfill in the UK - update

Warning: long, techy post updating this 2008 post

How much waste needs to go to landfill?

When talking about waste and landfill there are a few basic definitions that need to be understood to make sense of it all. The first is to understand the term arisings. Included in the figures for arisings is waste that's immediately reused or relocated on site, such as the product of dredging a river or canal which is deposited on the bank, unsaleable mineral and mining waste that is dumped elsewhere within the mine or quarry, and construction and demolition waste that is spread on site or crushed and reused elsewhere. Waste arisings from industrial processes frequently have a residual value and are re-sold or reused, and other industrial and commercial waste can be profitably recycled. Thus of the estimated 335 million tonnes of waste arising in the UK each year, only a small fraction needs to be disposed of. 

Secondly, not all waste that needs to be disposed of can be sent to landfill. Medical, clinical and biohazardous waste needs to be incinerated and toxic and radioactive waste similarly needs special treatment. However, both these categories are so small in overall tonnage terms that they can be ignored. Of the remaining waste for disposal, much will be inert, such as demolition rubble, and can be disposed of near to people and close to watercourses without risk. The remainder of household, commercial and industrial waste that may rot or that contains pollutants or products of decomposition that fall below hazardous can be disposed of in dry landfill. So how much of that 335 million tonnes needs to go to landfill altogether?

From DEFRA's published figures here, here and here, the annual totals are:

Waste to landfill UK Million Tonnes
Household waste (2006) 22.46
Construction and demolition (2005) 28.00
Commercial and Industrial (2009) 11.30
Total 61.76

In fact, the household figure is too high; it's actually the figure for what's termed municipal waste and includes both household waste and a proportion of commercial and industrial waste where councils collect and dispose of this as well, so there's some double-counting. But no matter, let's stick with the higher total.

Where does the landfill capacity come from?

Landfill sites come mainly from the activities of quarrying and minerals extraction - holes in the ground. Generally, hard-rock and opencast coal sites will tend to be dry and suitable for all types of non-hazardous waste whilst sand and gravel workings are frequently close to the water table and will be mainly suitable only for inert waste. The following figures are for the annual quantities of products sold, i.e. the quantity of space created by materials leaving the quarry gate. Unsold excavated material that is redistributed elsewhere in the workings is not included.

UK Million Tonnes Density tonnes/m3 UK Million Cubic Metres
Opencast coal 9.51 1.50 6.34
Land-won sand and gravel 66.64 1.65 40.39
Crushed Rock (note 1) 128.00 2.60 49.23
Clay and Shale 6.47 2.00 3.23
Limestone & Chalk 23.62 2.55 9.26
Other 11.72 2.00 5.86
Total 245.95

1. Assume 50% limestone, 35% igneous rock, 15% gravel

Source: British Geological Survey, UK Minerals Yearbook 2009

Excludes Marine dredged aggregate, Peat, Rock Salt

You will have noticed I've converted tonnage to capacity; this is important in the next section, in which we compare the capacity of annual space created against the capacity of waste requiring landfill disposal. But you will see that we take some 246 million tonnes of stuff out of holes in the ground each year and need to put 62 million tonnes of stuff back in. 

Is landfill in the UK running out?

This is where we need to watch our figures. Firstly, we have lots of empty holes in the ground left over from two centuries of industry and development. So total capacity is the sum of the existing capacity plus the new capacity created each year. Then there's a big difference between licensed existing landfill capacity and actual existing landfill capacity; not all quarries and mineral workings are licensed to receive waste. And then there's the frustration that England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all report their licensed capacity separately, and whilst England and Wales report in terms of volume, Scotland reports in tonnage terms. 

The mass density of compacted household waste will vary widely, but from a number of studies a density of around 0.77 tonnes / cubic metre can be assumed. Construction and demolition waste will be denser,  around 1.0 tonnes / cubic metre. 

First, existing licensed capacity is as follows;

Licenced existing landfill capacity

Million tonnes Conversion factor Million Cubic Metres
England and Wales (2006) n/a n/a 693.73
Scotland (2009) 146.32 0.85 124.37
Northern Ireland (2005) 1 0.85 0.85

(Sources here here and here)

Now converting our annual waste streams to volume;

Waste to landfill UK Million Tonnes Conversion factor Million Cubic Metres
Household waste (2006) 22.46 0.77 29.17
Construction and demolition (2005) 28.00 1 28
Commercial and Industrial (2009) 11.30 0.77 14.68
Total 61.76


1. The UK has some 819 million cubic metres of licensed landfill capacity, sufficient for over 11 years of waste at current levels
2. The UK's potential landfill capacity is increasing at the rate of 114 million cubic metres a year, a surplus of some 42 million cubic metres a year over and above our annual landfill waste disposal needs
3. There is no shortage of landfill in the UK. 

Given the above, if you fancy fisking silly, poorly researched scare stories such as this one in the Guardian, be my guest. I can't be arsed. 


Anonymous said...

I absolutely and resolutely 'refuse' to link to your grauniad article!!

Oh dear sir, sorry!
Great article, good research, we're being totally blind-sided by bullshitting, numbskull civil servants working directly [under orders from] the tyranny of the Bruxelles - politburo.

UCKF off to 'em all.

We need a revolution, now!

English Pensioner said...

The EU needs to ban cheap landfill in favour of expensive recycling, incineration and other disposal methods due to Holland, Northern Germany and Denmark not having land fill because as soon as you dig a hole it fills with water! Thus without us wasting money on unnecessarily expensive solutions, we would be far more competitive, something which can't possibly be tolerated within the EU.
The main problem with landfill is that it's a NIMBY activity, but judging by the reaction to a proposed incinerator on an ex-landfill site near us, the local population would far prefer the land fill, even if you did get the occasional pong in the summer when the wind was blowing in this direction!
I'm glad that at last I have seen some data to show that what I have always instinctly believed is correct.

Tufty said...

Excellent post - very interesting. I have seen the same conclusion elsewhere - the UK has plenty of landfill capacity.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

Thanks R for a great bit of research and work. You have confirmed something that I have been maintaining for yonks - that we extract more than we fill.

Which kinda makes a mockery of all this EU crap!

Have bookmarked this as a source for future posts.

Don Cox said...

It sounds as though we could actually make some money by importing waste from Holland.

Robert said...

This is another story of EU intervention producing the most expensive way of solving a problem when there was no problem.

Landfill is a green way of producing renewable energy. It should receive the massive subsidies that currently go to bird blenders and solar farms. As it is the whole scam is based on taxing a time honoured practice in this country. What a surprise to see European corporate companies providing waste management services to our councils under 30 year contracts rather than the old practices of deals with local quarries or land owners to dump rubbish.

And then there are the fines for non compliance.....

What happended to subsidiarity with which Major sweetened the bitter pill of Maastricht?

Weekend Yachtsman said...

"What happended to subsidiarity with which Major sweetened the bitter pill of Maastricht?"

The same as happened to all the other deals that are claimed as Stage 3 of the Yachtsman's Patent Process* of EU legislation: it's either quietly dropped once nobody is looking, or it turns out to be illegal under some other, already-existing, provision of EU Law.

* In case you've forgotten:

Stage 1 - "There is no such proposal"

Stage 2 - "There is a proposal, but we will veto it"

Stage 3 - "We did not/could not veto it, but we've got an agreement on some other stuff we wanted, in return for caving in on this one."

Stage 4 - "The agreement turned out to be illegal/invalid/impossible" - in some unspeficied way

Stage 5 - The Regulation is introduced exactly as and when planned. UK enforces it more rigorously than any other member state.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that the UK produces 330 million tonnes of waste destined to end up in landfills every year. How can these figures be so different?
(I think I read it in a geography revision guide, so I don't see why they would give false figures.)

Raedwald said...

330 (or 335) million tonnes is the TOTAL waste arising in the UK each year - not the mass that goes to landfill. Either your revision guide was written by fools or you have misremembered the descriptor; the figures here are from government statisticians and sources are stated.

Thanks for reading.