Environmental Information Exchange

Environmental effects of waste

Although reducing an organisation's waste will, in almost all cases, save money, there are also clear environmental reasons for taking action to reduce waste – both in terms of the amount of 'rubbish' sent to landfill, as well as the amount of materials used.

Depletion of raw materials

Almost all the resources businesses consume are non-renewable – the resources cannot be regrown, or reproduced as only limited amounts are in existence. Materials such as plastics and metals, as well as construction materials such as marble and stone can all be considered non-renewable.

Any waste which is simply disposed of in landfill becomes unusable – this means that non-renewable materials are removed from future use – and more of the resources are required to be extracted, manufactured or found to replace what is thrown away. Clearly this situation cannot continue indefinitely – materials will eventually run out.

Depletion of energy reserves

The disposal of items (rather than reusing or recycling) also means that all the energy used in their manufacture (from extraction of the raw materials, to the production of the finished item) is also wasted. As the majority of energy used in manufacture and extraction comes from fossil fuels, these resources are also depleted, and more greenhouse gases are emitted, contributing further to climate change.

As more energy resources are used in manufacture, this limits the future availability of fuel for other uses such as heating, lighting and transportation.

Pollution effects

In addition to the emissions produced during the manufacture of the additional items created to replace what we throw away, waste sent to landfill can also create emissions and pollution.

Landfill sites also lead to high levels of greenhouse gases, particularly methane released from the breakdown from organic materials. The gases can be released into the atmosphere gradually where it adds to the problems of climate change.

In extreme cases, greenhouse gases can build up in pockets in landfill and eventually explode. Landfill sites often ‘flare' these gases (adding additional greenhouse gas emissions) and monitor to ensure that they do not build up, but the risk is still present.

The combination of rainfall and the biological processes in landfill also creates a toxic liquid known as leachate. This liquid is acidic, and although landfill sites are lined, leachate can leak into soils under the landfills contaminating the land, and can also reach water systems.

Space!

Landfilling waste also takes up valuable space. In the UK with our limited space, using large areas for landfill is particularly wasteful. Landfill sites are not suitable for housing, agriculture or leisure facilities (while in use), so large areas of useful land are put out of use by wasting materials.

Biodiversity

Landfill sites can have a damaging effect on wildlife. Huge areas of land are taken over for use as landfill, meaning habitats are destroyed. After they are decommissioned, many landfill sites are converted to nature reserves, but damage is done during the operational phase of the site.

Landfill sites can also have a damaging effect in allowing problem species to become too successful. Due to large amounts of food waste, rats and other vermin thrive in landfill sites, while opportunist species such as seagulls move to landfill sites, and carry food and other waste offsite.