What is landfill and how does it work?

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Posted by Keith Hirst on 30 August 2018

Do you ever wonder what happens when you throw away your non-recyclable waste? It goes into a hole in the ground, right? Well, kind of. A common misconception is that landfills are huge, dug up holes which act as a burial ground for non-recyclable waste to rot until the end of time. In fact, landfills are much more complex. This article will explain what a landfill is, how it works and the effect it has on the environment.

What happens to non-recyclable waste?

The world has shifted over the last decade to taking a much sterner approach to recycling. Nowadays, dropping an empty can of coke into a general waste bin can garner more piercing looks than sneezing in a library.

Unfortunately, a huge percentage of our recycled waste is rejected, often due to food contamination. This, alongside the products that cannot be recycled, contributes to the millions of tonnes of waste sent to landfill each year in the UK.

When you dispose of general household waste, such as non-recyclable plastic packaging, it gets removed by refuse collectors and taken to a landfill site. Here, a number of large, deep structures exist either above or below ground. These structures, known as landfills, are layered with impermeable materials such as clay and rubber, which act as a barrier between the contents of the landfill and the natural environment. Hence, landfills are not simply holes in the ground, but are containers that allow waste to decompose in an isolated space.

What happens to waste in landfill?

Once the structure has been filled and sealed, the isolated waste simply waits to decompose. Decomposition is the process of decay, in which bacteria breaks down the structure of the waste and reduces it into more simpler matter. Different materials take different amounts of time to break down. An apple core will take six months to decompose. A glass bottle, however, can take a million years to fully decompose.

Various substances are produced as a result of the decaying process. Many of these substances are acidic, and will merge with other acidic substances as they leak throughout the landfill container. The result is a concoction of various liquid and gas compounds, collectively termed as ‘leachate’ and ‘landfill gas’, most of which are harmful to the environment in varying degrees.

If the structures had not been reinforced with impermeable materials, much of this toxic waste would seep out and infiltrate the surrounding ground and air. Instead, drains and pipes are incorporated in the landfills to collect much of the leachate and landfill gas. Leachate is transported to a wastewater treatment plant, where it is filtered and reintroduced into the environment as clean water. Landfill gas is also collected, and much of it is transported and supplied to fuel engines to generate electricity. Unfortunately, not all landfill gas can be used to generate electricity, and much of it is burnt and emitted into the air as toxic waste.

So how problematic are landfills?

While landfills do provide more ecological benefits than most people think, the negatives are still grossly apparent. Ultimately, with some materials taking thousands, if not millions of years to decompose, the finite space that comprises the Earth is slowly being consumed by rotting waste. Recycling is undeniably our best option to protect the Earth’s environment and sustain our natural landscapes. We have made a good start, but we must continue to work as a collective to keep our planet healthy for the future.


At Thompson Fuel & Skip Hire, we’re passionate about the sustainability of our planet. We ensure that we recycle any recyclable materials we collect from our wide range of waste disposal services, and that we only send products to landfill when absolutely necessary. For more information about our sustainability policy, or to enquire about any of our services, give our friendly team a call today.

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