I got into an argument the other night with some friends, about recycling. We’d been enjoying ourselves watching a football match – it was one of the last games of the season and our team had just won. We were enjoying a drink afterwards when the subject of recycling came up. I remember we were talking about recycling the ball – interpassing – in the build up to a scoring opportunity. Then for some reason we jumped straight into landfill – I don’t know how (nor do I mean it literally). Now recycling is not something that usually comes up in our post-game analysis and I’m not one of your out-and-out recycling nuts. I do my bit when I can, where I can (and cans are something I always recycle, when I can). For some reason that evening I got quite passionate about it – maybe it was the environment. No, I mean the bar, not the Green World.
Anyway, we jumped into landfill – someone said that bad things happen when recyclable materials go to landfill. So, in the interests of a friendly argument I said no, it’s all good. That started the ball rolling, but after the dust had settled the debate carried on in my head, and here I am writing about it. I realised it’s not as straightforward as it seems. It is actually a complex discussion because it opens up the whole recycling debate.
I found out that the prices of recyclable materials have gone down in line with reduced economic activity. Specifically, glass, metals, paper and plastics prices had dropped and town councils could not afford to store the bulk until prices improved so they could sell it profitably. Gold, though, was an exception – there is gold in the connectors in computer equipment (which has to be specially recycled anyway), and gold prices have shot up over the last couple of years.
Paper is a bad recyclable for a landfill because when it decomposes the chemicals leak into the environment – it is not the cellulose fibre that causes the problems but the chemicals that bind the fibres together. Traditional printer inks contain heavy metals, though this is now declining as vegetable-based inks are more widely used. Although the UK recycles a high proportion of paper (3.8 million tons in 2011 from household sources and 8 million tons in total 2011), there is still a lot that finds its way into landfill. Metals are less of an issue in landfill, though paint and plastic coatings may take an age to decompose. Glass is practically immortal in landfill, and many plastics will take hundreds of years to decompose – and even then there may be a residue.
So, we have poisons and persistence – though inert materials such as glass are not inherently harmful in landfill and persistence is not such an issue. The two main reasons why it is bad to put recyclables in landfill are two sides of the same coin (or as the football commentator famously said ‘it was a match of two halves’).
Firstly, it is a lost opportunity – if they are recyclables, then they should be recycled. Of course, economics comes into play and there may be a time when we see ‘waste tax’ in the same way as we have ‘carbon tax’ and ‘carbon credits’ to change commercial behaviour and drive more recycling. Companies already have to report waste packaging usage.
Secondly, landfill sites are environmentally sensitive and scarce. Nobody wants to live near one. Putting recyclables into them eats up precious volume.
That leads into my final point – organic waste is a large component of landfill, and few people today recycle in home compost heaps. In Victorian times it was not unusual for people to keep a pig, which was fed much of the food scraps and peelings. I know, because I once lived in a small Victorian house with a pigsty. The Victorians also used to recycle newsprint, in the bathroom (I’m being polite). That led to other problems, which I discovered when renovating an outside drain at the house. It didn’t quite recycle, and it had persisted…
Because of the high levels of organic matter, modern landfill sites have to be constructed to vent off the methane gas which develops when organic household waste (including newspaper) decomposes, and that’s the bad news at the landfill site. It is also why we have peat, coal deposits, and oil fields today – what goes around comes around, if you have enough time to wait. Given another 10,000 years I might have had a peat deposit in my outside drain, with fewer traces of Boer War news stories!