UK Waste is a joint venture between the giant US waste business Waste Management International and Wessex Water. It operates 11 landfills.
As part of its expansion drive, the company has conducted due diligence surveys of 158 landfills over the past three years. It has now gone public with some of the findings because it sees its business threatened by inadequate standards among many of its competitors and by Government policies.
The findings need to viewed against UK Waste's own policy to operate only containment sites equipped with at least a single liner - in one case a quadruple lining system - and leachate and gas management systems, backed up by routine gas and leachate monitoring.
Of the 158 sites surveyed by UK Waste, 68 were closed and 90 operational. The latter take in almost 20 million tonnes of waste annually - about 15% of total inputs to landfill - and have a remaining void space of 225 million cubic metres.
The main findings were:
UK Waste says that the lengthy "tail" of landfill capacity designed to standards which are no longer acceptable is not only storing up future contamination problems, but is also jeopardising the commercial outlook for operators who have invested heavily in improved modern designs. And the problem, it claims, is being exacerbated by Government policies.
At least three of UK Waste's own sites are understood to be struggling for business against competition from neighbouring poorly engineered landfills. UK Waste's charges are in the "mid-teens" per tonne, but its competitors are charging £5-10 per tonne.
A spokesman commented that "Waste Management was happy to invest in the UK on the basis of what we were told was coming in under the Environmental Protection Act. What we hadn't expected was that old sites would be allowed to continue indefinitely until they were full. The promise of tighter regulatory standards has also failed to materialise."
One of the company's major handicaps is that operators of landfills licensed before 1 May have effectively been exempted from the need to provide financial guarantees to cover pollution risks under the 1990 Act. This has increased the price differential between old and new sites.
The company is now deeply concerned that the effect of this differential will be exacerbated by the landfill levy announced by the Chancellor in November (ENDS Report 238, p 3 ). It believes that this will provide an added incentive for waste producers to send their wastes to sub-standard sites.
UK Waste intends to use its findings to exert pressure on the Department of the Environment. It wants it to urge waste regulation authorities (WRAs) more strongly to review the licences held by older landfills, with containment being required for any significant remaining void space.
The company also wants the DoE to recommend to WRAs that they demand financial guarantees as and when licence conditions are tightened. Whether this is possible under the 1990 Act is itself the subject of a destabilising uncertainty.
UK Waste is also hoping that some allowance can be made in the landfill levy for sites designed to higher environmental standards. And it wants the DoE to make it clear that co-disposal operations should not be carried out in anything but engineered containment sites.