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talking point

The approach to landfill practice and engineering must be reassessed in light of the new landfill directive, says Peter Atchison.

Imminent implementation of the landfill directive gives a suitable focus for analysing current landfill practices and engineering. Despite increasing pressure through the directive to reduce volumes and types of waste going to landfill, it is accepted that this method will play a large part in waste disposal strategy for many years to come.

So why is it that new developments in products and services associated with landfill have such a difficult time being accepted or even considered?

For the site operator, regulatory inertia often makes the introduction of new or different products and services so difficult that it is not worth their while. It seems that any attempt by the operator to suggest new solutions is immediately regarded by the regulator as an attempt to reduce costs and standards. Has the privatisation of the industry in this country really created such an 'us and them' mentality?

A classic example is the problems with daily cover material on some landfill sites.

With landfill tax, contaminated land issues and the practical shortage of soil for cover on some sites, the search for suitable alternative daily cover (ADC) is one of real importance to operators.

It should also not be forgotten that many of these ADC materials offer environmental and aesthetic advantages as well as the commercial one of maximising landfill void and hence making maximum use of the available resource. Surely it would be of advantage to both operator and regulator to see more trials and long-term use of these alternatives.

Reaction to the suggestion of a material other that HDPE for any type of landfill containment application is another good example. Granted, HDPE has a history of use, is relatively tough and chemical resistant. It is also, however, relatively inflexible, prone to environmental stress cracking and difficult to join in poor site conditions.

The fact that many of the sites in the UK are lined with this material does not mean that newer and better materials should not be considered. If industry does not develop materials and engineering applications then it stands still.

We have come a long way from the earlyunlicensed sites to correctly contained and engineered landfill. This is not a 'holy grail' - the process is ongoing and resistance to change is the largest economic barrier to new development.

Lest it appear that the cause of such inertia is being laid solely at the door of the regulator, let us remember that we as consultants and practitioners are in many ways equally to blame.

In today's highly competitive environment, designers are constantly bidding for work which is on short lead times, limited or zero fee generation (unless contracts are won) and bidding against each other.

It is so much easier to replicate design and specification information from previous contracts, making adjustments as necessary to suit the new site or application.

It is easier and quicker than initiating new and original design work which, while being groundbreaking in terms of engineering development, will take longer to produce, cost more man hours and run the risk of raising questions with the client or regulator. So much easier to stick to the same tried and tested solutions which can be simply reproduced and will not elicit any expensive questions.

The increasing use of design and build type competitive tendering in our industry, while unquestionably offering clients cheaper construction, has led to a 'lowest common denominator' approach which acts against all developments other than those which save money. Improved environmental protection and increased effectiveness do not feature in this cost-driven area. It is left to the regulator to 'police' the end solution.

Landfill licences are developed over extremely long periods of time and it would be unrealistic to suggest that 'best available technology' written in at the start of a licence is likely to still be in vogue five to ten years later. Granted, many more controls are written around performance criteria and that is laudable; unfortunately these criteria tend to be linked to specific products or solutions (the manufacturers are clever in helping this) and as such a superior but different solution/product finds itself excluded through historical prejudice.

If development of better landfill techniques and more efficient landfill sites is to continue, then the regulatory framework needs to be open to these new ideas and solutions.

After all, landfill is not a dead industry; it will need to continue to provide a useful and necessary means of waste disposal well into the coming decades.

Alternatives need to be found and more recycling has to be done, but increased efficiency and commercial advantage will allow landfill to form an efficient part of the waste strategy without detriment to these other mandated goals.

Peter Atchison is director at PAGeotechnical and a member of the Environmental Industries Commission's Integrated Waste Management Group.

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