Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Why Is Landfill Bad?
With a large percentage of our plastic waste ending up in landfill, it's important to know the risks and dangers that landfills pose.
We are going to look at the effects of landfill on their local surrounding environments, the statistics concerning the amount of waste in landfill, and some alternatives to landfill in the present, and ideas for dealing with waste in the future.
We are going to be talking mostly about plastic waste in landfill, as that is the area we are most qualified to talk about.
How Much Waste Is In Landfill?
Every year 2.12 billion tonnes of plastic waste enter landfill.
Only 9% of all plastic waste has ever been recycled, leaving the other 91% to go to landfill, incineration or the natural environment.
It is difficult to say the exact amount of waste in landfill currently, as there is the potential for waste in landfill to end up in the natural environment via wind.
What Are The Risks Posed By Landfills?
Landfills are situated all over the globe, so the negative effects of landfill are relevant to all areas on an international scale.
Leachate is the toxic mixture formed from rainfall and plastic waste in landfill.
When landfills are rained upon, the toxic chemicals in the many tonnes of plastic waste combine with the rainfall, in effect creating a toxic sludge.
This leachate then moves downwards into the landfill, eventually reaching the ground water beneath and surrounding the landfill site. From here, this leachate can pollute the soil and local water table.
A landfill situated in Port Meadow, near Oxford in the UK, is estimated to release 27.5 tonnes of ammonium into the local River Thames every year.
When this ammonium reaches water, nitrogen is formed as a by product. Nitrogen results in aquatic plants growing and decaying at a much faster rate than normal, meaning the water quality is damaged.
It also means that the local fish and other organisms are deprived of the necessary oxygen they need to survive.
A more concerning side effect is the generation of blue-green algal blooms, which can prove lethal to livestock, domestic pets and wild animals.
Blue-green algae are actually made up from types of the bacteria known as cyanobacteria. These blooms full of the cyanobacteria are toxic, and can cause nausea, skin rashes and fever in humans.
Landfill, on a much wider level, is not sustainable due to there only being a finite amount of space on our planet.
At some point, we are physically going to run out of space to put our waste in, if we keep on producing the amount of waste we are currently making. Sadly, this has already been happening for many years in developing countries, whether the waste was exported from richer countries or created domestically.
Alternatives To Landfill
From the effects of leachate, it is clear than landfills are not remotely a safe or sustainable option of dealing with our plastic waste.
There are a few alternatives, with the main choices currently being incineration or recycling. These two options aren't really sustainable either in their current forms.
Incineration is far more dangerous in some parts of the world than others, due to the safety procedures put in place in different countries.
More developed countries typically have invested more in waste management strategies, meaning incineration is a lot safer in countries such as the UK, when compared to countries such as Thailand.
In countries like Thailand, India and Kenya, it is not uncommon for plastic waste to be burnt in open, uncontrolled environments.
This means that toxic chemicals within the plastic get released into the open air, which can be detrimental to the health of surrounding populations.
When common plastics are incinerated, such as PE, PP and PS, carbon monoxide has the potential to be produced.
CO can arise as a product from the incomplete combustion of the plastics just mentioned, which can have serious health effects on both humans and animals.
When PVC, another conventional plastic, is burned, dioxins have the potential to be produced.
In developed countries, significant measures are usually in place to stop these chemicals reaching the natural environment, so the effects of incineration are felt far less in developed countries.
Recycling is the other main alternative to landfill. However, as previously mentioned, only 9% of all plastic has ever been recycled.
This is clearly not an efficient system, and one that needs to be worked on fast if it is to become a viable alternative to landfill and incineration.
Recycling was invented in 1970s America with the 'Keep America Beautiful campaign'.
This campaign was paid for by the very same companies creating the waste in the first place.
In making this brilliant piece of marketing, the companies creating the waste could now shed their hands of responsibility for where waste ends up. This left the responsibility down to the consumers, and it's where the responsibility has remained ever since.
Recycling is largely misunderstood, and the fact that a huge amount of plastic waste is exported to other countries every year is also not widely known.
In 2018, the UK alone exported 611,000 tonnes of plastic waste to be recycled in other countries. The reason for this large export is to both keep recycling rates at a high level, and to keep costs low.
The obvious flaw in exporting plastic waste is that where the plastic waste actually ends up is not considered. As soon as the plastic waste leaves the UK, all 100% of it is automatically counted as recycled.
This is clearly at the best foolish, and at the worst intentionally misleading of the UK government, to count recycling stats in this fashion.
Why on earth would a developing country have a 100% recycling rate, when the international rate is only 9%? This imagined increase of 91% is miraculous, and clearly completely incorrect.
The UK government, through the current system of PRNs (packaging recovery notes) incentivises the export of plastic waste, in front of recycling plastic waste domestically.
When plastic waste is exported, the subsidy is for 100% of the total input of plastic. For example, if a recycling company is to export 1 tonne of plastic waste, they would get the subsidy for the value of the entire tonne.
This is because, as previously mentioned, 100% of the waste exported is automatically counted as recycled .
Domestic recycling companies only get the value of the output, so if they successfully recycle 50% of the 1 tonne, they only get paid the subsidy for the half tonne.
This gap in subsidy rewards clearly favours exporters, which is why so much of our plastic waste is shipped abroad.
Another way of looking at the plastic problem is not to look at the disposal methods of conventional plastic, but to look at replacing it altogether with new materials.
Conventional plastic is plastic that is produced from fossil fuels, as well as not being able to biodegrade.
The alternative to conventional plastics are bioplastics, which are materials produced from renewable resources, materials that can biodegrade, or both.
There are pros and cons to every material, so there is not one overall 'winner' as such, but in our eyes bioplastics are far more sustainable as a whole compared to conventional plastics.
There are three 'groups' of bioplastics, when sorted by their base and their biodegradability. Let's have a look at the graph below, to see how these groups are divided.
The group that makes up many of our compostable items in our range of eco-friendly gifts is the section in the top right of the graph.
Bio based biodegradable bioplastics have low carbon footprints due to their renewable bases, and have the potential to biodegrade.
If we take PLA (polylactic acid) as our example, we can see the clear benefits when compared to a conventional plastic such as PET.
Both plastics are similar in terms of their characteristics, with both of them being thermoplastics.
Thermoplastics are materials that can be remoulded and reheated without any chemical change.
This is compared to thermosets, which are plastics that can only be moulded once, and cannot be reformed on reheating.
PLA is produced from renewable resources, such as cornstarch.
This is in comparison to PET, which like all conventional plastics, is produced from fossil fuels. As a result of this production source, as well as production processes, PLA has a 75% smaller carbon footprint than PLA.
The other key characteristic of PLA is it's ability to be compostable.
Being biodegradable just means that a material can break down into CO2, biomass and water.
The problem with labelling plastics biodegradable is that there is no time frame on biodegradability, meaning a biodegradable plastic could be present in the natural environment for many years.
If a material, like PLA, is compostable, it can biodegrade within a certain time frame, under set conditions to form compost.
This organic composting is the best way we currently have of moving away from landfill situations, and creating environmentally friendly closed loop situations.
When it comes to landfill, all efforts should be made to divert waste away from landfills around the world.
Leachate and blue-green algal blooms are two serious consequences of leachate entering the natural environment, and ones that will only get worse if landfills aren't dealt with properly.
With recycling and incineration not being sustainable also, we need to do a full U-turn when it comes to thinking about waste management.
We need to move into a new phase of closed loop organic recycling, utilising the characteristics of compostable bioplastics.
If you would like to read more about the future, and present, of dealing with waste, feel free to subscribe to our email list at the bottom of the page.
Gifts For Eco Warriors
With this blog, we have explained why we design our range of gifts for eco warriors around the premise of reducing waste sent to landfill.
By designing our gifts from the off with the intention of sustainable end of life management, we can ensure our gifts for eco warriors are respectful to the environment at every stage of their journey.