Where are the bodies buried? – some concerns about landfill

Angus Hanton sees our casual attitudes towards waste landfill as a mark of casual attitudes towards future generations

Owners of landfill sites usually know that they have a landfill site, but their detailed knowledge is typically poor. That seems also to apply to the authorities in the UK.

Future generations will surely want to know as many details as possible so, even if we can’t stop using landfill, we should surely keep better records.

Landfill sites vary in what they contain, their extent and depth, but all of them serve a function. However, if we took really seriously the idea of leaving the world in as good a state as we found it, we would not be depositing waste like this.

Those who protest at new landfill site proposals are often characterised as nimbys (not in my back yard), but in fact many of them are uncomfortable at the principle of landfill. Apart from us leaving land which cannot easily be used in the future, many landfill sites often have a further damaging intergenerational effect: they release methane which is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Intergenerational concerns keeping accessible records

Some information is kept about landfill, but it seems not to be kept centrally in an accessible form – often landfill sites have only poorly documented paper records kept by local authorities.

When one compares how readily other geographical information is available through Google Earth and related tools, it is surprising how difficult it is to find out about the detail of past landfill sites. The reason may be partly a psychological thing: that people don’t like thinking about their waste, either personally or as a society. It may also be that there are issues around measuring and regulating what has actually happened – waste disposal companies have every interest in squeezing in more waste than the authorities think is permitted and in blurring the grey areas between hazardous and non hazardous waste.

Indeed maybe the divisions between different types of waste are themselves too clumsy and should be improved.

Personal experience and what the Environment Agency does about old landfill sites

If one speaks to owners of landfill sites, they are usually quite vague about exactly what has been put on their land and how much material is there. In the UK, the Environment Agency regulates the European Landfill Directive and is responsible for 2,000 sites, but there is also a historical legacy of sites and very little work appears to be done on improving information on these.

The Environment Agency categorises landfill sites according to different types of risk, concentrating on the risks to groundwater and on gas emissions. Of course they are constrained by their limited resources in regulating, so it appears they have little available for going back to the historical landfills and building a digital picture from old paper records.

This illustrates how, even in making budgeting decisions between short-term protection and longer-term record-keeping, an organisation such as the Environment Agency is itself making intergenerational judgements.

What will future generations think of us?

The mental picture of future generations of archaeologists picking over our waste to make deductions about how we lived is based on our own archaeological work to find out about Romans and other ancient civilisations. This may be a fantasy in that it doesn’t take account of the different scale of our activities: in Roman times the world population would have been about 200 million – only about 3% of today’s population (now about 7 billion) – and even as recently as 1800 it was under 1 billion.

This suggests that future historians may be as much puzzled by the sheer scale of our land-filling as they are by the contents.