Recently described as the “dustbin of Europe” by the Local Government Authority environment board chairman Paul Bettison, the UK needs to take control of its waste now – before it gets out of control.

Both industrial and domestic waste levels are too high for the amount of disposal space available. Predictions show that, at current levels, the UK will have run out of landfill room within ten years.

Industrial and commercial waste accounts for around 25% of the UK’s entire waste volume. And now, with stricter regulations meaning that much of this must now go to hazardous waste landfill, space is at a premium. Contaminated land specialist Craig Sillars from Churngold Remediation argues that landfill is no longer the routine option it used to be. “Traditionally, landfill was the cheapest, quickest option for developers and contractors to get rid of contaminated land,” he says. “But new waste classifications and increased landfill costs mean that this is now far from the automatic choice.”

In an effort to make management of hazardous substances more centralised, numerous hazardous waste sites have now closed – leaving only 12 commercial sites in the UK, down from 240 in 2004. Overall, production of hazardous waste has fallen since 2001. But, with such a huge reduction in sites, space is in very high demand, which forces contractors to look elsewhere for alternatives to landfill. The EU Landfill Directive has forced more stringent regulations and classifications for all landfill substances.

Excess soil

Sillars has seen many changes in the industry in the past few years: “Initially the Landfill Directive caused the remediation process to come to a halt as people didn’t know what to do with their excess soil.

“Since then, there is a lot more knowledge about different techniques available. We have noticed a substantial increase in the acceptance and use of a variety of alternative remedial methods, as well as an increased acceptance of even traditional methods such as a range of biological applications.”

Sillars’ team offers a series of landfill alternatives, which allow soil to be remediated such that it can be retained on site. These days, this can comprise a range of physical, biological, chemical or even thermal treatment solutions. Increasingly, the treatment systems are becoming more aggressive. This, says Sillars, is much needed. “The problem in the past is that not only was dig-and-dump cheap it was also a lot quicker than the alternatives. Nowadays, however, processes as hard-hitting as steam-enhanced remediation (SER) are providing rapid treatment options in a cost-effective manner, while other aggressive treatments such as chemical oxidation are also coming more to the fore.”

Another alternative to dig-and-dump is the Soil Surgery, Soil Hospital or soil treatment centre – depending on who you are speaking to. These are emerging as an interesting alternative to hazardous waste landfill. The centres are set up to accept hazardous waste for treatment or recovery. This is currently via either biological or soil-washing processes with the market for a fixed thermal treatment plant still being considered given the additional expense associated with setting up this technology.

Andy Wheatley, managing director of contaminated soil treatment specialists Deep Green UK, believes that the increase in urgency in finding landfill alternatives has had a direct positive effect on his business, thermal desorption.

Thermal desorption

This process is a low-risk installation that treats soils contaminated with organic pollutants. This method was developed in the US and has previously been applied mostly there and elsewhere in Europe. But, now that economics are changing in the UK remediation industry, it is emerging as a viable alternative to landfill.

One way in which the government is trying to tackle the crisis is by establishing super sites, which allow local authorities to team up on waste management and share space. These joint waste authorities (JWA) will have the added benefit of not only collaborating with each other over various waste management issues, but also spreading costs of new, more sustainable waste facilities.

The South-east in particular is facing a looming crisis – with predictions that space will run out within three years. The area will need hundreds of new sites if it is to continue to cope with the volumes of waste it is currently managing. The likelihood of either the space or the planning permission for these sites being realised within these timescales is close to zero – so alternative measures must be found. “It’s possible that JWAs may help ease the pressure in the short term, but the long-term view remains unwavering – we must continue to find an alternative to disposing of a large majority of our country’s waste,” adds Sillars.

“The remediation sector has a substantial role to play in this – and while there are difficulties finding solutions for municipal waste, there are now proven alternatives to the landfill of contaminated soil.”

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