In the days before EU directives and our own UK legislation, a large proportion of our general waste was sent to landfill, big areas of wasteland onto which huge amounts of different kinds of rubbish were deposited. This included mixes of electrical equipment, plastic and glass and packaging, all of which can take hundreds or thousands of years to decay and, in the meantime, cause substantial harm to the environment.
Landfill was also used for food and garden waste, often compressed down and covered with soil where it began to decay under a process of anaerobic digestion. Unfortunately, over a period of time this kind of process creates gases such as methane which can cause problems for the environment and particular issues if the land is then used for building on.
Landfill sites can also produce toxic substances such as leachate, a process which happens when water filters through waste catching every little hazardous substance on the way. This can not only pollute the ground but seep into watercourses and drains.
When products such as computers and televisions were sent to landfill it meant that the area was filled with all sorts of other toxic materials. This included hazardous substances such as mercury, cadmium, solvents, lead and acids. These harmful to the environment but are also a direct threat to humans as well.
Around the last twenty or so years, various laws and directives have been introduced to help reduce the amount of rubbish that we send to landfill. These sites now have to be specially licenced to handle particular types of waste and cannot accept anything beyond their remit. In addition to this, councils and local businesses have been given the responsibility of recycling and processing different types of waste. This is particularly important for products such as plastic bottles and packaging which takes a long, long time to decay. They are now recycled as are other substances such as glass and metal as well as electronic equipment which can be broken down into components that can be reused.
Food and garden waste are sent to composting sites and anaerobic digesters that can be used to produce valuable fertilizer and methane gas and electricity. Waste that cannot be recycled is now often sent to incinerators which can also be used to provide heat and power.
The amount of biodegradable waste that we were sending to landfill by 2013 had been reduced to about 9.2 million tonnes which sounds a lot but is considerably less than the amount that was going there when the 1999 Landfill Directive was introduced. We now also recycle around 50% of waste with the potential to improve this over the next decade or so.
The good news is that everyone is involved in this. Local councils have put processes in place for better general waste management and households now have their own sorting bins that can be easily collected. Businesses have a duty of care to dispose of their waste responsibly which means hiring a reputable disposal company and auditing the whole waste management process. The UK has been at the forefront of reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill, a lot more than many of our EU counterparts.
Now that we have decided to come out of the EU this process should continue as there is plenty of UK legislation in place to ensure compliance. Handling our waste better and recycling more not only benefits local communities and reduces costs on new products such as paper and plastic, it reduces our carbon emissions and our collective impact on the environment.