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When I tell you that one of my outdoor activities over Easter was to visit a landfill site, a lot of you will probably wrinkle your nose and a single word will pop into your head: why? Because I’ve always wondered what happens to our waste once we put it in the bin, take out the bin bag and a lorry shuffles along and takes it away. This has probably never crossed the majority of Britain’s minds, so I thought I’d investigate for us.
Located near Chichester in West Sussex, Lidsey is a site which has been filling its land in a long process since the 1980s. Much of it now has been covered over and re-planted with grass in anticipation of being returned to agricultural use. When I arrive, everything seems peaceful and quiet, but that’s because the point at which lorries are coming to dump whole tanks of waste is at the other end of this 50 hectare site.
Landfills are filled systematically in cells which have been lined to prevent any kind of substance leaking into the environment, and rather than HDPE plastic (made from petroleum) which lines most, Lidsey actually uses bentonite to line their cells. Bentonite is a type of clay and the earth Lidsey sits on just happens to be an abundant source of it. ‘We use the somewhat more natural substance of clay already in the ground to prevent any leakage,’ says site co-ordinator Hazel, ‘and the earth we dig out of one area we use to cover over the previous in a controlled cycle.’
After a quick chat with her and Ian, the site manager, we head out over a huge mound of mud in a very well splattered 4×4. When I open the door at the other end, the first thing to hit is the noise. Huge tractor-like machines and lorries roaring about, interspersed with the distant screeches of hundreds of seagulls. The birds almost blot out the sky as they hover over a gigantic roller, waiting for their chance to scavenge.
Next invasion of the senses is the smell: your average rotten egg pong. ‘We’ve been having problems recently with locals complaining of bad odours coming from the site,’ says Ian, ‘but it’s a situation which is hard to combat. There’s sulphide in rubbish, and when there’s a lack of oxygen underground it gets turned into hydrogen sulphide, which is what makes the eggy smell.’
It doesn’t seem too pungent to me, but as well as being a broad-spectrum poison, hydrogen sulphide can deaden the sense of smell. I can still smell that fresh flower scent when my flatmates bring home a bunch, but this highlights the general health risks of human-produced waste and moreover the extent to which they threaten all those who work on landfill sites.
On top of hydrogen sulphide, landfill gas includes methane. In fact, it makes up a large portion of gas produced by decaying waste, again due to an absence of oxygen. It’s not all bad though: once covered for a year, landfill sites collect the methane and utilise the gas in the production of electricity. In doing so, Lidsey itself produces enough energy to power 1,500 homes. So in some way, a small amount of our rubbish is recycled.
But the scale of it is astounding. I watch at least thirty lorries come through to distribute their waste in one hour, highlighting all the trash produced by humans. There is everything from plastic bags, garden chairs and sweet wrappers to planks of wood, whole shredded cars and nappies – all of it covered in dirt and juices.
And then there’s the question of what happens to rubbish other than being sent to landfill sites. Surprisingly, a large amount of consumers’ waste gets chopped up and shipped to Europe to be incinerated, which, again, produces electricity. Otherwise, a lot of our rubbish gets put on ships to places like China, to be used or disposed of as they see fit. ‘But what people don’t know,’ Ian says, ‘is that those ships will often reach China empty.’ What happens to all that waste you may wonder? A very good question.
And the final crunch of the matter – recycling. This has boomed in recent years, with all of us now being able to recycle glass, cardboard, paper, tins, cans and plastics. Lorries come and collect our recycling just the same as lorries for general waste. Then it gets sorted all ready to be recycled… and then what?
‘The thing is,’ murmurs Ian, ‘recyclables rely on the open market, and so the situation changes when the price goes up or down. Essentially, we have too much recycling, loads of it just sitting in warehouses. So when there’s an excess what are you going to do with it all? Send some of it to China and India, and if not take it somewhere you can dispose of it safely: landfill. We had two great loads of recyclables from Portsmouth and Southampton this morning.’
For us all, the single thing to take away from landfill is to think somehow of reducing our waste. Here are a few pointers: buy a cotton or strong plastic shopping bag which will last; go to your local greengrocer where the fruit and veg is less likely to be wrapped in plastic packaging; buy recycled paper or where paper can be substituted for something long-lasting, like cloths instead of kitchen towel, make the switch; and just generally re-use anything and everything you can. Easy right?
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