UK Waste hits out at landfill standards

A leading landfill operator, UK Waste, has taken the unprecedented step of disclosing the results of more than 150 pre-acquisition audits in a bid to expose the poor standards of engineering at many UK landfills. The firm claims that inadequate regulation is damaging the business of landfills designed to high environmental standards - and that more waste may be diverted to sub-standard sites when the Government introduces a landfill levy.

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:

  • 59% of the closed landfills were "dilute and disperse" sites.

  • 49% of the operational sites are designed on "dilute and disperse" principles. Another 22% are based on it situ clay, 17% are equipped with a single liner, and 12% have composite lining systems.

  • 57% of the closed landfills were co-disposal sites. Of these, 61% were operated on "dilute and disperse" principles.

  • 36% of the operating sites are co-disposal landfills. Of these, 54% are run on "dilute and disperse" principles, and only 7% have composite liners.

  • Of all the sites surveyed, 54% had no leachate collection systems, and a further 18% relied on recirculation as their main method of leachate control.

  • Half of the sites surveyed had no gas control systems.

  • Of the remaining capacity, 57% is in "dilute and disperse" sites or those with only in situ clay.

  • 76% of the total waste input to the 90 sites is going into non-engineered landfills.

  • A particularly important finding from a market perspective is that the average remaining life of the active "dilute and disperse" sites is over seven years and the in situ clay landfills eight years. For single-lined landfills the figure is 17 years, and for sites with composite liners over 20 years. In contrast, UK Waste's only "dilute and disperse" site is to be closed next year. Of its other void space, 36% is single lined and 61% has composite liners.

    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.

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