Circular Economy: Loads of Rubbish?

Landfills are more carefully managed now than in decades past, but what is the status of those filled and abandoned before legislation came into place? What does the UK’s waste creation and management say about our culture? How do landfills exemplify both our need and ability to create a more circular economy? 


Climate change has become an unavoidable topic of debate and action on all levels, from individual to international commitments. However, just as neoliberalism in the 1980s encouraged the social shift into the single-use, consumptionist culture we know today, the 2020s is the decade to move away from constant growth and towards rethinking how we conceive ‘waste’. With approximately 20,000 historic landfills in England alone, and over 300 landfills accepting waste every day in the UK, why do we continue to begin and end conversations about rubbish with the correct bin in which it should be deposited, rather than questioning the systems behind the waste creation in the first place?

What are the problems with historic landfills? Do they still have potential utility?

Historic landfills – closed sites no longer in use – are often completely left out of the conversation about waste, despite the risks and rewards they present society today. In the past, whilst some refuse was buried, a large proportion was incinerated. In 1956, the UK government passed the Clean Air Act in an attempt to reduce pollution, resulting in unprecedented volumes of rubbish being buried instead of burned. Household, industrial, and construction waste were buried together without appropriate legislation or management. 

This lack of controlled landfilling allows materials such as electronic waste (e-waste) and organic matter to mix together and leach out chemicals, creating the toxic fluid ‘leachate’, mostly composed of ammonia and heavy metals. In an unlined or improperly sealed landfill, leachate can enter and contaminate nearby water systems – polluting animals and drinking water. Mixing types of waste also poses a serious fire hazard in landfills, as they generate pockets of methane which can ignite if exposed to oxygen. Moreover, approximately 1200 of these historic sites are located in low-lying coastal areas. This is concerning because as coasts have eroded over time, the unsecured, toxic mixed waste is being washed out into the waters, polluting the oceans and marine life.

As climate change is increasing coastal storm frequency, coastal flooding and subsequent contamination is only likely to worsen.

Despite this, landfill mining is a potential solution to our depletion of fossil fuels, as the products we have made and thrown away using these resources are actually being preserved in sealed historic landfills. For example, a newspaper from 1986 should have decomposed within 2-6 weeks of entering the landfill, yet remained completely legible when unearthed nearly 40 years later. Not only would investment into landfill mining reduce the extraction of raw, finite materials, but would prevent more resources filling the earth as recycling and restoration processes would be forced to improve. 

How much waste do we produce? What do we do with it?

The UK generated 221.0 million tonnes of total waste in 2016. Although the majority (62%) was construction, demolition, and excavation waste, this sector had a 91% recovery rate. 12% was household waste, 18% commercial and industrial, and 8% other. Yet despite the urgency of the climate crisis, three years later the rubbish sent to landfill in England rose by 4% or almost 46 million tonnes, and the UK household waste recycling rate decreased in 2018 to 45%. The European Union Circular Economy Package (EU CEP) target for the UK to recycle at least 50% household waste by 2020 was only met in Wales (54.1%), and, post-Brexit, the UK has introduced its own CEP. 

despite the urgency of the climate crisis, three years later the rubbish sent to landfill in England rose by 4% or almost 46 million tonnes.

The growth of e-waste (anything with plugs, cords or electronic components) is a serious problem worldwide. Due to containing hazardous yet valuable, non-renewable materials, e-waste needs appropriate and safe disposal, meaning no e-waste should end up in landfills. Yet 155,000 tonnes of e-waste was still buried or incinerated last year in the UK. The 2020 Sustainable Development Goals report states that in the last decade e-waste generation grew by 38% globally, but less than 20% is recycled. Furthermore, up to 40% (209,000 tonnes) of e-waste in the UK is illegally exported using the ‘repairability loophole’ [which] allows products to be exported for re-use if they are not yet classified as waste. E-waste is sent to lower-income countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, and Pakistan, where inadequate infrastructure means that the waste is often openly burned. This irreversibly destroys finite resources and damages the health and wellbeing of those working at and residing near these sites. Transitioning to an effective circular economy would mean preventing these hazardous methods of disposal and enabling the components for all kinds of e-waste to be dismantled, recovered, and reused.

What is the UK Circular Economy Package? Is it as beneficial as it sounds?

Announced in 2020, the UK’s Circular Economy Package is largely the same as the EU CEP (2018), as the UK was still under EU law when this legislation was introduced. It includes commitments to send less than 10% municipal waste to landfill by 2035, and to reuse and recycle 55% of municipal waste by 2025, 60% by 2030 and 65% by 2035. However, Zero Waste Europe has suggested that “meeting the 10% threshold is extremely challenging and may push decision makers to invest in waste incineration so as to minimise landfilling”. This target therefore may hinder progress towards a circular economy. Instead, the report proposes that landfill waste should be measured using kgs (per person) of waste rather than a percentage, and calculated with reference to a baseline year rather than ‘in any given year’, as these changes would emphasise the volume of total waste being created and underline the importance of reducing and recycling rubbish in the first place.

Moving towards a circular economy through focusing on waste creation and management would move us closer to meeting many of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), including SDGs 12 (Responsible production and consumption) and 13 (Climate change).

Ultimately, the climate crisis demands a shift to a circular economy. To make the lifespan of objects circular rather than linear by connecting the stages of creation and discardment, we need to invest in landfill mining; improve recycling and restoration processes; reduce material extraction and consumption. A circular economy would force us to reinterpret our current social concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ as being interconnected rather than mutually exclusive. It would recycle, repurpose, and reinject back into use the vast majority of the valuable non-renewable resources which we continue to send unnecessarily to incinerators and landfills. 

Art by Tatiana Dickins

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