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Landfill site: what happens to your waste?

What is a landfill site?

A landfill site is a disposal facility where waste is permanently buried, often in a hole in the ground. When it is full it can be covered up and made to look like part of the landscape. They are usually located in former quarries and are licensed and regulated by the Environment Agency. England's reliance on landfill reflects its geology and extraction industry history, which has made suitable landfill sites relatively abundant throughout the twentieth century. However this is changing and it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find suitable areas for landfill sites.

Today, it is quite a complex process. Landfill sites are carefully designed, well controlled and monitored for containment.

The sites are lined with an impermeable layer of clay; then rubbish is tipped into the hole until it reaches the level of the surrounding ground. It is built into or on top of the ground and isolated from the surrounding environment (groundwater, air, rain) and covered daily by a layer of soil. When the hole in the ground is full, it may be covered up and subjected to landscaping to improve its appearance.

What happens to the waste in a landfill?

  • The waste is poured into the hole in the ground.
  • Heavy machinery is used to compact and squash the waste, which removes trapped air spaces.
  • The rubbish is then covered daily with soil, for a better appearance and to prevent odours.
  • Waste can start decomposing, or rotting, depending upon sunlight, rain water and other conditions.

Environmental impact

As rubbish rots it can have some negative environmental impacts:

  • The rubbish rots and makes a gas called methane which is a greenhouse gas, this presents a hazard for the global environment and can be explosive and cause fires at landfill sites. To prevent this, a series of pipes are embedded within the landfill to collect the gas. In some landfills, this gas is vented or burned.
  • When it rains, the rain soaks through the rubbish and this can pollute our water courses. This pollution is called leachate. The water picks up contaminants such as organic and inorganic chemicals, metals and biological waste products of decomposition.
  • Landfill sites are filling up very quickly, and space approved for landfill is set to run out in the next five to ten years in England.
  • Some of the waste will stay in the landfill site for a hundred years, some might stay forever.
  • Landfill tax escalates every year and is becoming an increasing burden on anyone disposing of waste in landfill including council's.
  • Sending our waste to landfill is the least sustainable method of dealing with our waste.

The positive aspects of a landfill site:

  • Some of the landfill gas can be collected and used as source of energy for heating homes and making electric.
  • Landfill sites are usually old quarries.
  • When the landfill site is full, a thick covering of soil is spread over it, and after the site has settled it can be reclaimed for agriculture, forestry or recreation.
  • Modern landfill operations are tightly regulated.


The regulations, EU landfill directive (99/31/EC) and the UK National Waste Strategy aim to reduce the volume, types and quantities of waste that can be sent to landfill and increase recycling rates. Rubbish put in a landfill will stay there for a very long time. In certain areas, suitable places for landfill sites are becoming rare and capacity will run out in a few years. Nobody wants to live near a landfill site. So what can you do about it? You can re-think the way you consume in order to reduce your waste and you can reuse and recycle.

Decomposition time

In a landfill site, waste will decompose depending upon sunlight, rain water and other conditions. Decomposition means the breakdown of organic materials. Here is a selection of decomposition times.

Material Example of decomposition time What you can do
Cans 80 to 100 years Recycle in your green or purple box
Cardboard several months to 5 years Recycle in your green or purple box
Cigarette butts 12 to 40 years Quit!
Disposable nappies 100 years to never Use cloth nappies
Fruit and vegetables 6 months to 2 years Compost your food scraps
Glass bottles and jars Never Recycle in your green or purple box
Paper 5 months to 50 years Recycle in your green or purple box
Plastic bottles 50-100 years to Never Recycle in your green purple box
Motor Oil 10 to 30 years Recycle it at the Reuse and Recycling Centre

The decomposition information was provided by the following sources:

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This page was last updated on Monday 16 December 2013