What Happens at a Landfill Site

Welcome to part two of our three-part series on what happens to your household waste once it’s been emptied out of your wheelie bin and driven off into the sunset. In part one we looked at where the contents of your recycling bin end up. Part two is all about the stinky stuff: your general waste and the rubbish that goes to landfill.

The UK’s local councils process almost 23 million tonnes of household waste per year, but with a recycling rate of less than 50% there’s still about 4.1 million tonnes going into landfill. It’s a staggering amount and it’s hard to really picture the scale. The mathematicians among you are probably wondering what happens to the other 36% or so that doesn’t get landfilled or recycled. Well, the answer is that it gets incinerated to produce energy (“waste for energy”).

So what actually happens at the landfill site?

You’ve probably got a vague image in your mind of bin collection lorries driving into a big hole full of rubbish and dumping their loads straight in. It seems like the logical thing to expect, but this isn’t actually what happens.

Let’s start at the site entrance. When the lorry arrives, it’s first weighed to see how much rubbish it’s holding. The next step is a materials recovery process that pulls out some of the useful materials – such as metals – that people might have incorrectly chucked away instead of recycling. Thanks to this process, about one third of what we throw out gets saved and sent for recycling rather than being put into landfill. In fact, it’s particularly important because, in What Plastic’s local area alone, 48% of people put recyclable or food waste products in their rubbish bins instead of their recycling or green bins. And in the UK as a whole, about 3 million bottles end up in landfill each year when they should have been recycled.

General waste dustbin

Does this mean you can give up on recycling and just stick everything in general waste?

Definitely not! Even with the materials recovery process, most incorrectly binned recyclables slip through the net and end up in landfill anyway. Besides, it takes energy to run this additional sorting process.

OK, so some waste has been diverted from landfill. What next?

After the materials recovery process, the waste goes through a decomposition process. The idea is that some of the waste will get decomposed before it’s even landfilled so that it takes up less space. The waste also gets shredded because, if you think about it, a whole pile of bin bags will contain some seriously inconveniently-shaped objects, and the more that can be squished into a given space, the more efficient the landfill site will be (plus it saves a whole load of money). This process produces greenhouse gases, which are captured and used for electricity.

It’s only after all this processing that your waste ends up in landfill. The site is split into different “cells” – massive holes in the ground – that the waste is buried in. The site I visited had about 17 of these cells and was about to start digging the next couple as each cell gets filled in only 18 months. The cells cost around £2 million to dig because of all the infrastructure and other costs involved:

  • a thick lining composed of clay, gravel, plastic and other layers
  • pipes to vent the methane that the rubbish will produce
  • roadways for the trucks to drive into the site
  • landfill taxes
  • ongoing management and maintenance

It goes without saying that, here at What Plastic, we aren’t exactly fans of landfill sites. Aside from the fact that they’re a waste of materials and pollute the environment, they’re also expensive to build and they smell pretty rotten. The best thing really is to reduce the amount of waste we produce, reuse things wherever possible, and recycle if we still find ourselves with waste.

household waste collection

To finish, here are some of the things I learned when I visited the local landfill site:

  • The average household is composed of 2.1 people and we each throw out over 400 kg of waste per year – that’s about a ton per household per year
  • Disposable nappies take 500 years to decompose and each child gets through around 6000 nappies in a lifetime. If Henry VIII had worn a nappy, it’d still be around today
  • The reason you shouldn’t put textiles in your household waste is that it jams the processing machines. Obviously, stuff that’s still in good condition can go to a charity shop. As for holey socks and fabric scraps, you can put them in clothes banks (maybe try to bag them up separately to the nice usable stuff though)
  • About ⅔ of the waste we produce in this country is commercial waste
  • The total amount of waste produced in the UK each year (household and commercial combined) is 180 million tons

Part 3 of this blog series is all about what happens to your garden and food waste bin at an in-vessel composting facility.

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