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Waste Disposal in the UK

In the UK, the most common disposal method is landfill. Incineration, anaerobic digestion and other disposal methods are also used.

Landfill

Each year approximately 111 million tonnes, or 57%, of all UK of controlled waste (household, commercial and industrial waste) are disposed of in landfill sites. Some waste from sewage sludge is also placed in landfill sites, along with waste from mining and quarrying.

The UK has valuable minerals that are mined extensively for industry. The extraction of these minerals produces large holes in the ground, which need to be filled in and landscaped. The use of these sites for the burial of waste seems a convenient solution. The UK has ideal underlying geology in many places, making landfill a cheap waste disposal option. In 1994 there were approximately 4000 landfill sites in the UK.

A large number of landfill sites can be found in many parts of Europe and the USA. However, some countries do not have significant amounts of suitable land and so landfilling is scarce. For example, Japan disposes of most of its country's waste by incineration as the geology is unsuitable for landfill.

Traditionally, waste would be dumped into a site and forgotten, but nowadays this is an unsustainable practice with increasing amounts of waste being produced. Today's generation must dispose of waste in a way that will do the least damage possible, and keep the environment fit for the future.

There are two main types of landfill sites that can be used:

Attenuate and Disperse Landfills: this method relies on the uncontrolled release of leachate into the environment. This is a very gradual permeation through the surrounding groundwater and geological strata. This process is called attenuation, and is supposedly sufficiently slow to enable the dilution of any contaminants to such an extent that they are rendered safe.

Containment Landfills: in North America, Japan and Europe, this is the predominant form of landfill site. Any escaping liquids or gases from the degradation of waste in this type of site are managed or treated. In some countries, such as the USA and France, a specific form of containment called entombment is used where the waste is kept dry and leachate generation is minimised.

Once a landfill site is full up, it must be capped, covered over and landscaped to blend in with the natural environment.

Incineration

Incineration is the second largest waste disposal method in most countries. In the UK, approximately 5% of household waste, 7.5% of commercial waste, and 2% of industrial waste is disposed of by incineration. When burning waste, a large amount of energy is given off. Modern incinerators use this energy to generate electricity and hence prevent energy from being wasted.

The UK houses numerous types of incineration plants, ranging from large scale, mass-burn, and municipal waste incinerators to clinical waste incinerators.

In the UK, in the 1990s, many hospitals had clinical waste incinerators. However, emissions from the burning of hazardous hospital waste were said to be too high under the Environmental Protection Act of 1990. Many hospitals could not meet the new regulations and were forced to shut the incinerators down. Today, hospitals tend to share one large incinerator to dispose of the wastes for a number of hospitals.

Large-scale municipal solid waste incinerators experienced similar problems in that they did not comply with EC legislation. Many of them were shut down, with the exception of four that were fitted with gas clean-up systems. The clean-up systems cost a great deal of money.

Incinerators are classified as either Mass Burn Incinerators or other types of incinerators. Mass Burn Incinerators are used throughout the world for the disposal of municipal solid waste. Other types of incinerators are responsible for the disposal of other waste, for example clinical waste.

Anaerobic Digestion

Anaerobic digestion decomposes waste in a similar way to a landfill site, but in an enclosed chamber. Digestion takes place in an oxygen-free environment. Bacteria thrive in this environment by using the oxygen that is chemically combined within the waste. They decompose waste by breaking down the molecules to form gaseous by-products (methane) and small quantities of solid residue.

Anaerobic sewage plants produce significant quantities of methane, which can be used to generate electricity. Liquid and solid organic fertilisers are also formed, and can be sold to cover operating costs.

For several years, sewage sludge and agricultural waste has been treated by anaerobic digestion, and the process is now being used for municipal solid waste. It requires the biodegradable section of the waste to be separated from other material and put into digestion chambers.

In the UK, anaerobic digestion is not a major waste disposal method. The UK has only a small number of plants, and each can handle approximately 260-300 tonnes of waste per year. However, a number of plants are currently being developed to increase the usage of anaerobic digestion. Many other countries already utilise anaerobic digestion to dispose of large amounts of waste, e.g. Denmark treats 1.1 million tonnes of waste per year.

Other Disposal Methods

Pyrolysis

This relatively recent method of waste treatment heats organic waste without oxygen to produce carbonaceous char, oils and combustible gases. Relatively low temperatures of about 400-800C are used to degrade the waste materials.

The oils may potentially be used as fuels, as they have a higher energy density than the raw waste, or used to derive chemical feedstock. Solid fuel or char-oil may be produced from the char, or it may be used as carbon. The pyrolysis plant itself may be powered by the energy from gases generated during the thermal degradation of the waste materials.

Investigations have been made into further developments of pyrolysis systems for municipal solid waste, plastics, tyres, biomass and sewage sludge. Commercial exploitation of energy from some of these waste materials has also been under development.

The Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation has encouraged the use of pyrolysis systems as a means to produce energy in the UK, by subsidising the cost of fuels produced by the process.

Gasification

This process is similar to pyrolysis, with the exception that oxygen is used. A gas product, ash and a tar product are the by-products of a reaction in air, steam or pure oxygen, at high temperature, with the available carbon in the waste. Higher operating temperatures are used than for pyrolysis, with 800-1100C for air gasification, and 1000-1400C with oxygen.

The gases produced during the process can be utilised by direct combustion in a boiler or furnace, and the heat energy is used to produce steam for electricity generation or for process heat. Both pyrolysis and gasification have been used in modern developments of thermochemical waste processing, and several combined systems are now at the commercial stage.

Composting

Organic waste, such as garden or food waste, may be biodegraded by composting. This process may take place over as little as 4-6 weeks, by which time a stabilised product is reached.

Individual households have practised small-scale composting for many years, and the UK Government is now encouraging this. By the year 2010, the Government hopes to have 30% of domestic waste either recycled or composted. Large-scale composting schemes are also being developed, with the collection of organic waste from parks and civic amenity sites. Garden and food wastes are collected directly from households in separate kerbside collections. Large central facilities can then compost the collected organic waste.

The stabilised product can be added to soil, especially clays, to improve soil structure, and also act as a fertiliser and mulch. It is also used to improve moisture retention in the soil.

The amount of biodegradable material in landfills will be greatly reduced, with the effect that less landfill gas and leachate will be produced. This is a benefit for the operation and management of landfill, but it is a disadvantage for those landfills designed as bioreactors to generate landfill gas for energy recovery.

There are other major sources of organic waste as well as domestic, park and garden wastes. For example, agricultural waste, sewage sludge, forestry waste and food waste all constitute organic waste.

Other countries have a much larger waste composting industry than the relatively small scale one practised in the UK. France, the USA, Portugal and Spain, have relatively high rates of waste composting, whilst Japan has a low composting rate.