June 12, 2020

The Importance of Diverting Waste From Landfill

Imagine 770,000 London double-decker busses full of waste. Now imagine a hole big enough to fit them in…….

Sadly, in the UK, this amount of waste is being buried beneath our feet each year. This blog explores the alternatives and presents five things you may not know about UK landfill.

It is important to understand that the principal goal would be not to generate waste in the first place. This would require society to continue adopting waste smart products and services and would break the waste chain before it began, shifting away from disposal single-use items. The next best thing is for both consumers and business to better adhere to the Waste Hierarchy.

It is also key to understand that no matter how much prevention, reduction and recycling methods are adopted there will always be some waste that requires further treatment. The goal of Recovery is to minimise these wastes as much as possible and in the most sustainable way. By utilising the right technology and processes within the recovery band, landfill waste can be significantly reduced. This said technologies within this band vary in both capacity and capability.

Five things you may not have known about UK waste and landfill


1. Despite improvements, over 20% is still landfilled


Pre 2016 the UK government released figures showed that over 50% of all waste was landfilled. Since then, progress has been made through increased public awareness and the introduction of comprehensive recycling schemes. Despite this progress, in 2018, over 20% of all waste was still recorded as being sent to landfill. To put this in perspective, this is enough to fill 8928 Olympic swimming pools.

While a roughly 30% drop in landfill may seem an impressive improvement, it is essential to consider where the diverted waste is ending up. The majority of the saving comes from large scale waste incineration. The UK needs to utilise the best alternatives and adopt cleaner practises if it is to meet its 2050 targets.


2. Where your plastic really goes


Despite the percentage of plastics and packaging waste being recycled in the UK rising to 71.4%, the amount ending up in landfill has increased by 446,000 tonnes (15%) since.

To meet recycling and landfill targets instigated by public pressure, the UK government has been exporting half of the packaging reported as recycling last year to be treated in China, Turkey, and Malaysia. The UK has been offloading wastes on these nations due to their lighter emissions restrictions and because general regulation is lower than the European standard. This move has been considered as deceitful in the mainstream media as the government is claiming environmental success. In reality, the problem is just being moved.

Southeast Asia is being overwhelmed with widespread illegal dumping of UK waste. The Malaysian environment minister has recently criticised the UK’s approach stating that his country would no longer be the “world’s dumping ground”. This statement came after the discovery of 60 containers of contaminated plastic waste that had been smuggled into the country. She went on to threaten to  return of 3000 tonnes of low-grade plastic to 14 countries. If you are interested in finding out more about this topic follow:


3. Landfill mining – ASR (Automotive Shredder Residue)


When you hear the term landfill, your first impression may be that it is just a large hole filled with waste. What may surprise you is the vast quantity of precious resources discarded amongst the waste, copper right the way through to gold, it is all there.  In some instances, standard technologies are unable to economically recover these elements, so they are treated as waste.

There are two aspects to this issue, historic landfill, and current prevention. Historically landfill sites and dumps accepted up to 90% of all household and commercial waste. Because all items were put in the same fill and they predated recycling efforts they can contain everything!

Over the last few years, there has been speculation as to whether landfill mining is worth the financial and environmental cost. On the most part, experts suggest that rather than trawling through potentially hazardous historic landfills we should learn our lesson and further limit the materials making it to landfill today.

In terms of current prevention, the ASR (Automotive Shredder Residue) industry demonstrates that despite progress, more can and should be done. ASR is the end product of the recycling process for cars. Despite the car recycling industries efforts to improve, 5% of the vehicles are still making it to landfill in the UK. This 5% left is difficult to efficiently process as it is a combination of plastics, rubber and various metals. Although 5% may appear to be a good figure when looked at on a national level, it represents the equivalent of 50,000 entire cars making it to landfill each year.


4. Attenborough plastics effect


The Attenborough effect has changed the way the World looks at atmospheric and sea pollution. While the release of Blue Planet 2 (2017) and Our Planet (2019) have created vast levels of awareness and support for environmental causes, not enough is being done to combat the adverse impact our land-based waste disposal habits have. In the UK, waste equivalent to the volume of 770,000 London double-decker busses is buried beneath our feet each year. A considerable portion of that waste is and should be treated as the resource it is.

Illegal dumps and fly-tipping sites are also a big issue in the UK with over 1 million separate cases last year, some reaching over 10 tonnes. The items dumped in these illegal dumps (even on the sides of roads in rural areas) tend to be made up of difficult to treat and expensive to legally dispose of wastes, such as mattresses. With greater public awareness and pressure, more can be done to limit these events and push the government to move to cleaner and more efficient modes of recovery.


5. The problem of our future


There are currently more than 19,706 historic landfills and 500 active landfills in operation across the UK. So what’s the issue? The problem is that historic landfills contain hazardous flammable gasses and chemical sludges which contaminate the land above and around them. This makes it extremely difficult and expensive to build on the land due to the complicated process of making the land stable and safe. The climate and geography also have a part to play, flooding and erosion is a massive risk to these historic landfills as leaching chemicals make their way into land and river systems. The issues surrounding historic landfills should act as a warning and further encourage the adoption of more efficient waste management methods.

What is the alternative?

While increases in the recovery sector are visible in the statistics, it represents a shift towards mass incineration. This focus on centralised incineration by the UK government can only be a temporary phase if they are to meet their own targets. Waste to Energy on this scale creates emissions hotspots and concentrations, and its operation has a large carbon footprint.

Recent history has demonstrated that only having one method of waste management creates risk. Industry and the government must begin to adopt high-level recovery decentralised technologies that can deal with waste at its source.

A lesser-known alternative to large scale incineration that can treat waste locally is decentralised small scale pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is a ‘no burn’ thermal treatment, that prevents the build-up of noxious gasses and allows for the stable degradation of waste.

There are many pros to the use of pyrolysis as a waste process. Its use allows for product and raw material recovery, volume reduction by up to 90%, energy recovery and, due to the controllable process, CO2 and other greenhouse emissions can be minimised.

When used in conjunction with a regional/local strategy, it also makes significant reductions in ‘waste miles’ through fewer vehicle movements. In terms of waste hierarchy positioning, Pyrolysis sits on the line between recycling and recovery as the process can also be utilised for the chemical recycling of plastics.

As discussed above, it is vital that we continue to adapt our measure of best practises to allow for innovative solutions to be adopted. Adoption of small-scale onsite pyrolysis into the UK waste management and manufacturing system enables progress in all of the items discussed in this blog and helps fill a void in the current system.

At Pyrocore, we utilise the best in pyrolysis technology to efficiently and effectively meet these challenges. Our solutions have the capability to aid the diversion from landfill, enable companies to monetise their waste management, stimulate circular economy growth, sustain the global waste industry and help Governments deliver on their environmental targets.

If you would like to learn more about Pyrocore technology and our solutions, please visit our technology page or check out our other blog posts.  We would also love to hear from you, to get in touch with a member of the team please email

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