There's a common line from those who dislike either or both of climate change policies and the EU that the encouragement of recycling and strategies to reduce the use of landfill are just another of those idiotic greeny-greeny nonsenses. We've read this from Christopher Booker, on the EU Referendum blog and now from James Delingpole in the Daily Mail:
Every year Britain produces about 70 million cubic metres of municipal waste, while it has more than 819 million cubic metres available for landfill — a figure that increases by 114 million cubic metres a year as more quarries and gravel pits are dug.
By far the most attractive and safe option would be to have these gaping holes filled with rubbish and covered over or reclaimed, so the landscape looks almost as it did before.
This would have knock-on benefits for the aggregates industry, which could offset its costs — as it did in the old days — with waste disposal.
It would release local councils from layer upon layer of regulatory bureaucracy. No longer would we have to waste time pointlessly sifting our rubbish. And it would, of course, bring an almost immediate end to fly-tipping.
This, after all, was the system that worked perfectly well for us before our politicians and the EU stuck their oars in. If only we had the will and the courage of our convictions, it could work just as well for us now.
My instant reaction (one that most Cullingworth residents would share) is 'there speaks a man who doesn't have two landfill sites in his village' but to explain the problem let's describe landfill and consider what we mean by 'municipal waste'.
Modern landfill can be described as finding a big enough hole in the ground, putting a very big plastic bag (a sophisticated, highly-engineered plastic bag to be sure but still a plastic bag) into the hole rather like you do with the bin in your kitchen, filling it up with rubbish until you can't get any more in and then covering it over. And then we wait thirty to fifty years with out fingers crossed hoping that big plastic bag doesn't split.
Then there's the stuff we put in the landfill. 'Domestic' waste they call it and it's all that stuff you put in your general waste bin. So there's fairly benign stuff like food scraps, paper and plastic. And a cocktail of nasty unpleasant chemicals - the bits of bleach you don't rinse out from the bottle, the heavy metals in the spent AA batteries, the residual contents of aerosols, shampoos and a bewildering variety of pharmaceuticals. Domestic waste is truly filthy stuff - poisonous, corrosive and polluting. As it rots is produces a very dangerous leachate - the big plastic bag is all that stops this leachate from polluting water supplies and contaminating land. Do you really think the best way to deal with this waste is to but it in a big plastic bag on the hill above Cullingworth?
Now Delingpole is right to criticise the EU's waste licensing regimes, to question how the ramping up of landfill charges contributes to illegal dumping and to condemn the nonsensical manner in which recyclers are prevented from exporting recovered goods or materials. But this doesn't change the fact that landfill isn't the best way to deal with hazardous waste. Nearly all of that 70 million cubic metres of trash local councils collect is pretty dangerous stuff. Simply dumping it into holes in the ground without pre-treatment or the reduction of pollution risk is a recipe for blighting communities. And the best way to reduce those risks is to promote recycling.