Managing waste is necessary to ensure that it does not pose a risk to health or the environment. In the past we mostly buried our waste in the ground but today the aim is to reduce the amount we send to landfill and to recover value from as much as possible.
In 2010/11 41.5% of municipal waste in England was recycled or composted and another 13% used to produce energy. One of the main reasons for the drive to divert waste from landfill is the European Landfill Directive, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from waste and combat climate change.
The UK enacted this Directive via the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (LATS) which imposed annually-decreasing limits on the amount of waste councils could landfill, with fines for exceeding those limits. However following a review of waste policy in summer 2011, the Government decided to end LATS at the end of 2012/13 financial year, in the belief that the high and increasing cost of landfill tax was sufficient driver for diverting waste. The landfill tax for every tonne of waste landfilled rose to £64 in April 2012, and will increase by £8 per year until at least 2014.
There are a number of different ways of managing waste, dependent on the type of waste, and a hierarchy of options defined in the EU’s Waste Framework Directive (WFD) sets out the priority order. This is a useful general guide for materials once they have become waste. It is not intended to be a guide for what type of materials should be used for packaging because there are many other functional and environmental factors that need to influence choice of packaging. Guidance to implementing the WFD issued by the European Commission in summer 2012 confirms that lifecycle impacts can take precedence over the waste hierarchy for certain materials if it can be proven that following the hierarchy would not be in the best environmental interest of a product’s lifecycle.
All modern methods of treating and disposing of waste are designed to protect human health and the environment. In developing countries where waste is not collected and properly disposed of, the result is pollution of rivers and ground water, as well as exposure to disease from vermin attracted by the waste. Waste results from most human activities, and in the UK the majority of the annual* 288 million tonnes of waste comes from minerals and quarrying (86mtpa), and the construction industry (101mtpa). Household waste, the kind of waste we are all most familiar with, makes up only around 31mtpa of the total; commercial and industrial waste is more than twice that at around 67mtpa. Other wastes eg healthcare wastes, batteries make up the total.
Until recently the UK used a different definition of municipal solid waste (MSW) than that used in other EU countries, and included only those wastes arising from households, plus litter and street sweepings, that were collected by the local authority. This inconsistency caused problems when implementing EU Directives such as the Landfill Directive. In 2011 the Government amended its definition of MSW to match the EU definition and to bring into the municipal waste category those wastes which are similar in composition to household waste but arise from commercial and other sources.
To simplify data capture and comparison for LATS, a new category of waste has been created – Local Authority Collected Waste (LACW) – which is the waste formerly called MSW. Previously household waste made up around 90% of MSW in the UK, but it is predicted that this percentage will reduce to 50% or less once data using the new MSW definition starts coming in. It is not yet clear whether the LACW category will cease when the LATS requirements end in 2013.
Councils are responsible for collecting and dealing with waste from households and litter from our streets, the costs for which are included in our Council Tax. On average it costs a household in England less than £3 a week for all their waste services. Waste from business and industry is handled and paid for separately.
In recent years, regulations governing how waste must be dealt with have become very much more stringent and standards are now very high.
The Landfill Directive requires 65% of biodegradable municipal waste (the part that rots and gives off emissions, mainly methane) to be diverted from landfill by 2020. This is prompting greater efforts to recycle and compost waste (See Recycling Factsheet), as well as ways of treating unrecycled waste such as recovering energy from it (see Energy from Waste Factsheet). Landfill sites are designed so much of the methane is drawn off and used to generate electricity. However the contribution to UK renewable energy from landfill gas has reduced from 23% in 2009 to 16% in 2011, and with increasing efforts to divert biodegradable waste such as food from landfill, the landfill gas yield is predicted to drop dramatically in the next 10-15 years.
Landfill is the only single waste option that can deal with all wastes, and choosing an appropriate alternative depends on a number of factors including the type and amount of waste, the collection and transport system, the availability of existing treatment facilities and the potential for new ones, as well as costs and the environmental impacts of the different options. It is never going to be possible to completely eliminate landfill.
Every method of dealing with waste – including recycling – will have some impact, whether it is from the lorries delivering materials to a reprocessing plant, the noise of equipment or the visual impact of a large building. Technological advances mean that any new waste treatment facilities will include state of the art environmental controls far more effective than those of even twenty years ago.
Health effects of wastes management
Greenhouse gas emissions from UK waste management accounted for 3.2% of the total in 2008, or 17.9 Mt CO2e – compared to 59 Mt CO2e in 1990.
Of those, 89% arose from landfill, 10% from waste-water handling and 2% from waste incineration.
Research conducted in 2004 for the UK Government by consultancy Enviros found that emissions from all waste management processes are typically a tiny percentage of total national emissions.
- waste management generates 1.2% of the national carbon dioxide emissions; power generation accounts for 27%
- waste management generates 0.3% of national sulphur dioxide emissions; power generation accounts for 55%
- waste management produces 1% of nationally emitted dust particles (known as PM 10); road transport and domestic fires each produce 20%
- waste management emits 16% of dioxins, industrial combustion 36% and domestic fires 19%
Given the higher standards imposed and technological advances introduced since this study was undertaken, and taking into account lower rates of waste generation in several sectors, it is safe to assume that health impacts from waste management processes are even smaller now.
*2008 figures – source http://www.defra.gov.uk/statistics/environment/waste/wrfg01-annsector/