The landfill challenge: changing our wasteful ways

Recycling is a word that many people outside of the industry have long found disengaging. Peter Jones, Director of external affairs at Biffa looks at what is being done to revitalise the challenge to reduce the UK's reliance on landfill.

Recent pictures in the national press of fridges piled high in store yards across the country bring into stark reality the problems we have in the UK affecting real change in the recycling and recovery of waste.

The truth is, many will have dismayed at those pictures but will then have moved on to read ‘more interesting’ stories about elections in Ukraine or the Government’s proposals for ID cards.

Here lies part of the problem. Recycling is a word that many people outside the industry are getting tired of. ‘Yes’, we know we should do it, ‘no’, we’re not doing enough and ‘don’t know how or where’ is a typical response to the question, so how do you go about doing it?

Certainly there has been much effort over the last few years in trying to affect change in the UK to move us towards becoming better recyclers, but is this working? And what more needs to be done in order to get us to the point where we can say, with confidence, that we are doing as much as possible to limit the impact of our wasteful ways on the environment and our future supply of resources.

Attitude is certainly one factor that needs to be addressed. Technology, economics and legislation are others, and perhaps the greatest challenge facing our sector is getting these elements in the right order at the right time so real change can take place.


Waste disposal is a price-sensitive business. Ask anyone with a skip load of waste to dispose of. They want it done quickly and cheaply and that’s pretty much all that matters.

If we are therefore to reduce the input of wastes to landfill and encourage recycling alternatives, then the price has to be right.

Legislation of course plays a large part in addressing this. The landfill tax is an obvious tool, and its year on year increase is serving to make landfill a more expensive option.

Directives that limit the waste streams allowed at landfill also seek to play their part. The Waste Electronics and Electricals Directive, End of Life Vehicles Directive, tyres and batteries are all limiting the types of waste and, therefore, the amount of waste that can be landfilled, by placing responsibility firmly and squarely on the shoulders of the producer to recover a proportion of it. Punitive fines imposed on those that fail to meet their responsibilities, with the subsequent bad press that can arise as a result, is incentive enough in our cost conscious economy for firms to get things right.

The waste industry is doing its bit through compliance schemes such as Transform – a joint initiative between Biffa and EMR – to ensure workable systems are in place in the electronics and electrical industries.

Increasingly, the private sector is meeting its targets through legislation that demands producer responsibility. But what of local authorities, who are themselves subject to stringent recycling and recovery targets and the threat of financial punishment should they fail to meet their obligations?

Failure will hit the council tax payer hard, but how long before local authorities stop punishing those that are in fact contributing to recovery rates, by introducing domestic waste charging on individuals that fail to meet their individual obligations? Many people in the industry think it’s only a matter of time before this happens.

So slowly and surely, the legislation and economic factors are coming into place to drive recycling forward, but consider the facilities and technology we need to allow companies and local authorities to meet their targets.


Reprocessing exists for all manner of paper, glass, aluminium, steel, plastics and organic waste streams. However, as recent newspaper articles show, we seem to be struggling with fridges. The industry, Government and consumers need to reflect on how to prevent a similar problem occurring with waste electricals and whatever we choose to ban from landfill in the future.

The truth is we can provide much of what is needed. Biffa.s introduction of a Ball Mill – the front end of a mechanical/biological treatment facility – in Leicester is already recovering around 25% of that city’s waste while still undergoing commissioning trials.

Biffa prefer this front-end segregation method. It’s cost-effective and ensures better quality of materials. The use of enclosed, in-vessel composting systems can also perform to standards required for composting green waste and kitchen waste. These are in accordance with Animal by-products regulations and could produce material that meets the Composting Associations PAS 100 quality standard.

Yet we need more facilities to deal with segregating recyclables. As we reduce our reliance on landfill, so we need to provide alternative disposal routes and this requires an increased number of baling plants and MRF’s. These facilities require planning permission and with the public having a greater say in planning issues that affect their local communities, the country needs to look at its attitude towards waste.


It’s widely recognised that if we are to improve recycling and recovery rates in the UK, then attitudes must change.

Of course, economic and technological factors will have a significant affect on this, but education also plays a part.

At Biffa, we spend a large amount of time on school educational visits, which seek to instil a belief in the importance of recycling and reuse. The premise being that if you introduce children to these concepts at an early age, they will grow up believing that recycling is the right thing to do. The pressure that children can put on their parents to meet a family’s recycling obligations should also not be underestimated.

In many cases, waste companies also work alongside local authorities to communicate recycling messages to the public in order to support participation in kerbside initiatives and civic amenity sites.

The Government can also support the messages that the waste industry is promoting. The Do Your Bit campaign was one high profile initiative, but did it work?

Arguably, it didn’t and one reason for its perceived failure was the fact that the necessary legislation and economic factors were not in place and neither were all the necessary technological requirements. People may have wanted to do their bit, but weren’t quite sure how.

It’s hoped that the current Recycle Now TV advertising campaign, using comedian Eddie Izzard’s voice to encourage people to recycle, is more successful.

We must ensure that we have got the economic and legislative drivers along with the right technology in place to support the message and to deliver on the promises. If the country fails in this regard we risk losing the faith of the public, industry and dampening the desire of those who want to do their bit.

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