Our common inheritance

“Mr. Meeks, time to inherit the earth…”

The words of John Keating, played by Robin Williams, in Dead Poets Society from BITD (i.e. 1989). A fantastic film, instructive and reflective in so many ways.

And today is one that is reflective for me, considering the implications of a new report and emerging research reported in the Independent yesterday (22 February 2016) with the tried and tested “toxic time-bomb” headline. The research sets out to demonstrate that there are a lot of old landfill sites near the coast, near rivers and on floodplains, and that these may be leaking their toxic wares into water courses and the sea. Which they probably are.

They probably are because, pre-1990, these landfill sites were termed “dilute and disperse” – designed to do exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak. And tins they most certainly would have contained, including the contents of their contents, if you follow. Here are a few anecdotes from BITD.

  1. In 1981, when a local BMX track was constructed next to a river near the point where it meets an estuary and pristine natural harbour environment, it turned out that the site was a former landfill, used to dump rubbish from the growing population. It was mainly bottles, paper, broken objects and, I assume, ash. Pre-plastics, pre-digital tech, pre- food waste. Very much an era when the toxicity of materials was less well understood, and the effect of society’s impact on food chains was only beginning to be understood, though not accepted and certainly not acted upon. However, we threw less away, we were more resource-constrained and conserving. We were much less convenience oriented, more meek if you will…
  2. In the mid-1990s, I was involved in excavating trial pits in recently shut landfill sites. Oh! How I wish camera phones had been invented. The trial pits were dug because we had perched water in this site, i.e. in the wrong place so that it wasn’t percolating down to the bottom of the site, where it could be collected by the early containment system that had been installed, and pumped out for treatment. The percolating water in effect removed some of the pollution from the waste as it was breaking down; being perched meant it was inhibiting methane generation, which in turn meant that the site would take much longer to stabilise, i.e. stop generating methane gas. Newspapers dug out from the trial pits and themselves over fifteen years old (and sodden) were entirely legible and could be read once they had dried out. There were more plastics and some electrical equipment. And odour.
  3. I witnessed first-hand the engineering that went into post-1990 landfill sites, which was incredible – genuine end-of-pipe feats of human ingenuity, designed to contain and control, with separate cells or even sites for more hazardous materials and a log of what was accepted, where and when. However, the nature of the material we – society, residents of Great Britain – threw away had changed. What we – society – felt was acceptable to “waste” had fundamentally shifted. Our concern for the toxicity of our waste and these sites had not necessarily changed as a society, although major improvements to environmental legislation was clearly beginning to have an impact. Legislators and operators alike were concerned to ensure liabilities were limited, pollution was controlled and more value was extracted from waste – be that through kerbside collection of recyclables, recovery of as much methane as possible from landfill sites, or diversion into modern energy recovery facilities (many of the old “burners” had been forced to close by the early 1990s due to legislation from… guess where? Yes, the EU!).

And so, these three examples demonstrate how society more-so than landfill operators is responsible for the Earth that we inherit. The truth is, if chemicals and compounds have been escaping from landfill sites, they have been since Roman times, with increasingly toxic and larger amounts of wastes thrown into them as time has passed. Imagine, if you will, the pots and brushes and spillages that must have polluted the ground in the time of Diggory Venn, the reddleman in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native – ‘reddle’ is hydrated iron oxide, used to mark sheep.

Imagine also, if you will, the things you throw away today that are difficult to recycle, don’t burn easily (in an energy from waste plant) and yet contain metals, plastics, fabrics or food. Some of your waste from your home, your school, your business still ends up in landfill sites. Thankfully, there are fewer and they are contained and carefully managed. But it is still your waste – your responsibility and the responsibility of the organisations that made it and sold it to you, for you to use for as long as it lasted, or until you got bored of it.

And so, to my conclusions:

  • yes, there are a lot of old landfill sites (about 4,000) near the coast, near rivers and on floodplains (where lots of people have lived for hundreds and thousands of years), and some of them will have been designed to leak
  • there are a lot more landfill sites inland near where lots of people have lived for hundreds and thousands of years (about another 16,000) – the fact of the matter is that most of us live near an old landfill site of some description
  • thank goodness for EU regulations and our membership of the EU, which has greatly reduced the environmental impact of the waste we produce, improved resource efficiency and internalised some of the external (i.e. environmental, societal) costs of our waste.

It may be worth reflecting on all of this as you consider the impending referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.