Christian M. 7 min read

Why are landfills bad for the environment?

Landfills are a necessary evil. No one wants to live next to one, yet they are needed to keep excess waste away from our streets and countryside. The famous phrase: “We can’t live with them, but we can’t live without them.” very much applies.

Fortunately, we may soon see the end of it thanks to increasing recycling and incineration rates. These have significantly reduced the waste sent to landfills and are expected to continue until at least 2050. This is good news for the environment.

However, landfills remain an environmental hazard for as long as the waste remains undecomposed, as evidenced by the environmental threat of Victorian dumpsites that have woken from their slumber by the forces of nature.

This article provides six compelling reasons why landfills are bad for the environment and what the government can do to mitigate this problem.

💡 Contents

Foreword: We shouldn’t need landfills

Most of us accept that landfills are inevitable because we’ll always have wastes we can’t reuse or recycle, like clinical wastes or difficult-to-recycle plastics, but we beg to differ.

If humans had an instinct for protecting the environment, like we protect human life, by default, all human products would be made of biodegradable, recyclable, or reusable materials. Period.

It’s not impossible. Microorganisms can virtually dissolve anything into their original constituents, and there are ways of making plastic-like composites from everyday organics like carrots and potatoes.

However, we’ve been taught to value making money instead. This means prioritising the over-consumption of cheap products made from fossil fuels.

But times are changing, and a big reversal is in the works. Will this happen on time, though?

💡Landfill Essentials: If you’re unfamiliar with the basics of landfills, our FAQ section below covers the essentials.

Carbon emissions

This is probably the least intuitive environmental impact of landfills, yet one of the most significant. Why would burying solid waste lead to gas emissions? Or worse, why is the main gas emitted methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2 at causing global warming?

The culprit is the organic waste that evades recycling or composting and ends up in the general waste stream instead, such as banana peels, apple cores, spent coffee grounds, disposable coffee cups, and other everyday organic products like cardboard and paper.

When these wastes are compacted and buried, they decompose in an environment that lacks oxygen (also known as ‘anaerobic’ conditions), which is the correct recipe for generating methane gas instead of less harmful carbon dioxide. This process is the same as ‘rotting’ packaged food, which causes a horrible smell if you leave something in the cupboard for too long.

In contrast, organics that decompose in oxygen do so more rapidly and generate carbon dioxide and a solid soil amendment, which is significantly less harmful to the environment and the reason why garden and food waste that is composted correctly doesn’t stink

💡 Methane is twenty-five times stronger than carbon dioxide because of its higher capacity to trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.

How are carbon emissions reduced in landfills?

Landfills are designed to prevent as many passive emissions as possible. This is achieved by sealing the buried waste as best as possible and stopping gases from escaping. A network of interconnected pipes with small ingress holes is buried alongside the waste so any methane generated is directed towards a biodigester to produce useful biofuel instead. The effectiveness of this depends on the ‘capillarity’ of this network and how well the operators can seal the waste.

However, the waste hierarchy deems this a last resort, prioritising organic waste prevention and minimisation. Here are the most notable examples:

  • Composting: The decomposition of organic wastes such as food and garden waste in such a way that produces ‘compost’, a fantastic soil amendment, and smaller amounts of CO2.
  • Biofuel: Using biodigesters to harness all the methane (biogas) generated from rotting organic wastes.
  • Cardboard recycling: Cardboard recycling can significantly reduce the amount of water and resources used to make new cardboard.
  • Taxes: A landfill tax is levied per tonne of waste disposed of in landfills in the UK, discouraging councils and businesses from generating waste.

Water and soil contamination

As much as we’d like to keep landfills dry, this is impossible. Not only is water generated from rotting organic waste within the buried waste, but rainwater and groundwater will inevitably percolate through tiny fractures in the seals (made of clay, soil and synthetic membranes).

Gravity causes any water within the landfill to flow. It percolates through pores and small channels that cannot be tapered during compaction and burial. In combination with the high pressure and temperatures within the buried waste, the slowly flowing water leaches pollutants from the waste it comes into contact with, gradually turning the clean water into landfill leachate. 

This liquid can become extremely toxic, containing organic and inorganic compounds, including heavy metals, nutrients, toxic chemicals, acids, and harmful pathogens.

Technically, this leachate is contained as best as possible and drained away through a system of pipes and channels that direct it into a treatment facility, where it is cleaned and discharged into waterways. However, just like it’s impossible to keep all water out, it’s impossible to keep all water in: all landfill operators can realistically do is monitor to ensure any leakages remain within tolerable limits.

In most cases, the effects on surrounding soils and groundwater are subtle but often measurable: the soil degrades, and water becomes polluted, potentially harming humans and wildlife. The effects amplify with increasing leakage, which is more likely in ageing or older landfills constructed with less stringent regulations or when extreme events cause heavy rainfall, causing drainage systems to overflow.

How is water pollution prevented in landfills?

Tough environmental regulations and careful oversight keep landfills in the UK relatively unharmful. Contemporary landfills are often overdesigned to prevent the escape of leachate, making sure it is treated according to regulations and is able to withstand the increasing number of extreme events predicted due to climate change.

Encourages wastefulness

Some environmentalists have explained landfills from a ‘chicken and egg’ perspective.

Instead of this necessary evil resulting from our tendency to overconsume, landfills can be considered part of the problem. When the effects of irresponsible single-use products don’t become visible, such as rubbish piling on the streets or idyllic countryside becoming littered, it becomes easier to keep overconsuming.

That being said, landfills represent the most wasteful disposal method for valuable resources such as food waste that can be turned into valuable nutrients for our dying soils, waste metals that can be recycled for a circular economy, and even hard-to-recycle plastics that can be used to generate electricity and heat through incineration.

How is waste in landfills prevented?

There are three ways in which the UK is trying to curb the amount of waste sent to landfills:

  • Commercial recycling: All recycling initiatives prevent any product from becoming waste and end up in landfills.
  • Landfill tax: This is levied per metric tonne of waste sent to landfills, making it cheaper for businesses and councils that prevent landfill disposal.
  • Extended Producer Responsibilities: Incoming regulations give manufacturers and retailers responsibilities for the life cycle of their products, encouraging them to make them reusable or recyclable.
  • Waste-to-Energy: The UK’s main strategy to reduce landfilled volumes is to build more incinerators to burn disuse instead of landfilling.

💡 Declining tonnages: In 2000, approximately 72 million tonnes of waste were sent to landfills. By 2018, this amount had been reduced to about 12 million tonnes despite rising amounts of consumption and population during this period.

Impact on wildlife habitats

Landfill sites disrupt local ecosystems and wildlife habitats through land use change, disturbance, fragmentation, the introduction of invasive species and alteration of food sources. These are summarised in the table below:

Impact TypeDescription
Land use changeConverts natural areas into landfills, eliminating habitats for various species.
DisturbanceOperations and noise from landfills disrupt wildlife behavior and breeding patterns.
Habitat fragmentationCreates barriers that limit wildlife movement and disrupt ecological connections between habitats.
Invasive speciesDisturbed areas around landfills attract invasive species, threatening local flora and fauna. Invasive species can be inadvertently introduced from landfilled material.
Food source alterationWildlife may rely on landfill waste for food, disrupting the existing food chain.

Efforts to reclaim and restore landfill sites post-closure are crucial to mitigating these impacts. However, the current approach of minimising waste sent to landfills is also massively reducing these effects by limiting the UK’s landfill area and preventing new sites (although as a result, the UK is running out of landfill capacity!)

Quality of life in surroundings

Despite landfill regulations’ mitigating rules, it’s almost impossible for landfills not to affect the quality of life of businesses and residents in the surrounding area. While the visual effects of landfills are generally inconceivable and similar to those of any industrial facility, there have been cases of bad odours, excessive noise, and a reduction in the property value of surrounding areas due to landfill siting.

For example, as recently as April 2024, fed-up residents in Wales protested due to ‘rotten smells’ coming from the Withyhedge landfill site in Haverfordwest. These smells had caused many to shut their windows for months, and they worried about diminishing land values.

Long-term legacy

The UK is the first country to have extensive landfills because it was the first to experience an industrial revolution. The trend of now-disused dumpsters started in Victorian times and was largely sporadic and unregulated, meaning their siting did not consider mitigating their potential environmental impacts.

Additionally, many of these landfills were sited on the coast due to the convenience of transport and the less valuable land use perceived at these locations. However, the older generations did not consider the dynamic setting of these locations that can be affected by erosion from the sea and the flow of rivers.

Now, over 3,000 sites in Wales and England are seen by UK scientists as environmental threats, especially due to increasing erosion due to climate change. These old dumpsters are filled with toxic industrial residues and are beginning to leach chemicals like arsenic and lead into nearby beaches and seas.

And while modern landfills have been designed for the long haul, they still require effective remediation, leaving a potential problem for future generations.

UK Landfills – FAQs

Our business waste experts answer commonly asked questions on UK landfills.

What is a landfill?

A landfill is a designated site for waste disposal. Refuse waste is brought in trucks, compacted, and buried under soil layers in sites engineered to be sealed from the surrounding environment. They feature systems to manage leachate (liquid runoff) and capture gasses like methane. Landfills are one of the most common methods for waste management, intended for the safe disposal of non-recyclable or reusable waste.

How many landfill sites are there in the UK?

There are 574 landfill sites in the UK, as recorded by environmental agencies. This includes active and inactive sites across various regions of England (the vast majority), Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland but excludes historical sites before town and country planning laws were enacted.

To facilitate waste disposal, there are landfill sites near all of UK’s major cities, for example:

How much waste is sent to landfill in the UK?

In 2021, 6.7 million tonnes of waste were sent to landfills in the UK. This number has steadily decreased over the last couple of decades due to increased recycling rates and waste-to-energy. The table below shows this gradual decline in landfill waste over the period 2012 – 2021:

YearTotal waste sent to landfill (million tonnes)

Source: DEFRA

Is the UK running out of landfill space?

Yes, the UK is facing challenges with landfill capacity despite a sharp decline in waste received at these sites. This is because existing landfill sites are still being filled, and there is staunch opposition against building new ones, which is justified.

Another reason is that landfills in the UK are not evenly distributed, leaving some areas facing more acute shortages than others. Ultimately, the urban sprawl keeps expanding into the countryside, reducing the options for new landfill sites due to space constraints and the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sentiment.

What happens when a landfill becomes full?

All landfill sites in the UK have a maximum volume capacity. If this is reached, the landfill must legally stop receiving new waste. The buried waste is ‘capped’ (i.e. covered with a layer of clay-rich soil and a synthetic membrane) to make it as waterproof as possible and stop excess water from ingressing and potentially overwhelming its leachate drainage system. This cap also helps prevent direct methane emissions from entering the atmosphere, curbing the effect of landfills on climate change.

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