environment sustainability waste

The landfill problem

If you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss is about recycling, take a look at this graph from UNEP:

How long does it take for some commonly used products to biodegrade? (map/graphic/illustration)

Yep, that’s plastic bags wafting about for a thousand years, and bottles kicking around forever. Each of us in the UK personally throws away 4.5 times our bodyweight in garbage, and that’s a figure that until recently has been rising by 3.2% each year. Around three quarters of that goes to landfill.

The most obvious problem with landfill as a waste strategy is where to put everything – what do you to hide an annual total of 22 million tons of trash? But that is not the end of the problem. Medical research has linked proximity to landfill sites to lung, throat, and prostate cancers, asthma, kidney damage, and to increased risk of birth defects including cleft palate, low birth weight, and premature birth.
A bulldozer moving on top of a large mound of garbage. (United States Environmental Protection Agency. Reproduced by permission.)Then there’s the smell. With smells capable of reaching a mile from the actual sites, the potential for ‘odour events’, as the industry calls them, is high. Unsurprisingly, houses where odour events occur are worth less – £5,500 less if you live within a quarter mile of a dump. Add that up across the country, and landfill costs the economy £2,483,000,000 in lost housing revenue. Hmm.
If that’s not enough, consider the emissions. Decomposing rubbish gives off methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times as powerful as CO2. Around 27% of the UK’s methane emissions are from landfill.

According to the EU’s waste directives, the best policy for waste is not to make it. Sensible enough, and many countries are implementing measures to reduce waste. Then comes re-use, and then re-cycling. (re-use would see empty glass bottles collected and re-filled, for example, whereas re-cycling breaks the bottles down and remakes them.) If you can’t do that, says the EU, at least you can incinerate your waste and generate electricity from it. The worst thing to do for the environment is to find a big hole to dump it in. Currently the UK sends 77% of its waste to landfill.

How does that compare? Here’s how the rest of the European Union is doing, according to DEFRA‘s stats.

Municipal waste management, European comparison

The US, by the way, sends around 54% of its waste to landfill, according to the EPA.

In short, we’re lagging behind. We need to take recycling more seriously, and better still, think harder about how we cut down on our waste at the start.


  1. Jeremy,

    Thanks for posting this information. Here in the USA the 15th of November is America Recycles Day. I blogged about it on my blog and set up a link to this page in my blog so folks could see the great information you have here.


  2. thank you for the help, I really needed it for my geography and I didn’t know half of that stuff that is terrible, come on people get a grip!

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