How Does Landfill Work?

22nd March 2024

By Graham Matthews

Landfill essentially works by digging a big hole, lining it with a plastic material, dumping waste into it, compacting everything, and covering it with soil. The idea is that the rubbish put in landfills will break down and decompose over time. It’s the second-most used waste treatment in the UK.

As landfill has been in use for many years, in lots of cases the waste is put on top of existing rubbish that’s decomposed or is still breaking down or in new cells. Every landfill site operates slightly differently but the Environment Agency (EA) regulates each one to ensure they run safely and legally.

A greater focus on recycling and recovering waste, as well as a finite amount of space, means the number of landfill sites in the UK is falling. However, lots of our rubbish still ends up in them. Understand how landfill works and the problems with it as a waste treatment option in this blog post.

landfill site with seagulls flying over.

Landfill waste statistics

For an idea of how much domestic and commercial waste makes its way to landfill check out these landfill waste statistics:

  • 10,000 tonnes of waste are sent to landfill sites every day across the world
  • There are around 600 landfill sites across the UK
  • Landfill is the second-most used waste treatment method in the UK (after recycling and recovery)
  • Almost one quarter (23.6%) of waste in the UK is disposed of at landfill sites
  • 8 million tonnes of waste are disposed of at landfill sites every year in the UK
  • This includes 8 million tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste

What is landfill?

Landfill is a waste disposal method that involves burying waste in large, excavated pits or piling it up directly on the ground. Often at a landfill site, an area is quarried in the ground, it’s filled with waste, and then covered. Sometimes waste is piled above ground that creates land around the site, known as land raising.

The idea of landfill is to create space for waste where it can decompose. There are different designs and ways of working across landfill sites, but they’re all regulated by waste management staff today. Other names for a landfill site include the tip, dump, rubbish dump, garbage dump, trash dump, or dumping ground.

How does a landfill work? 

Landfill site designs vary but most follow a similar approach. Modern landfill sites are designed to separate the waste from the ground to reduce the risk of polluting the ground and nearby water. This is how a landfill works from start to end:

  • Excavation – a big hole is dug using industrial machinery on the landfill site to create a designated area for waste disposal. These specific areas within the landfill site are known as cells. They’re prepared, filled, completed, and restored over time.
  • Liners – clay or strong plastic are used to line the cell. This is to prevent waste and liquid (leachate) from escaping from the cell and landfill to pollute the surrounding soil and water.
  • Waste disposal – the waste is tipped at a designated ‘working face’ on the cell and into the hole. It’s spread out, layered, and then crushed down with a compactor. When all the waste is dumped for the day it’s covered with a layer of soil or inert material and left to break down.
  • Leachate collection – rainwater onto landfill and moisture within a cell can run through and create leachate – a polluting liquid waste. To prevent this polluting surrounding soil and water there’s a leachate collection system in place. Holes are drilled into the waste, lined with pipes, and a pump is fitted. This pumps excess leachate into a storage tank that’s taken off-site for safe disposal when full.
  • Gas control systems – methane and carbon dioxide are released that must be managed with a gas control system. Holes are drilled, lined with pipes, and connected to a gas pump. This gas is removed and may be burned to minimise its environmental impact or used to produce electricity. Gas levels are measured around every landfill site to identify changes quickly.
  • Landfill cap – a cap is placed on top of a landfill site when it’s full. Normally this is made from a thick layer of compacted clay that prevents rain from seeping through and bad smells emerging. Grass and trees may be planted on top. Even after a landfill site closes it must be regularly monitored to check on the leachate and gas levels.
machinery pushing rubbish on a landfill site.

What are the problems with 
burying waste in landfill sites?

The Environment Agency regulates UK landfill sites to ensure they operate safely, and modern designs aim to reduce the negative environmental impact of landfills. However, there are still many problems with burying waste in landfill sites that include:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions – a lack of oxygen as waste breaks down in landfills produces greenhouse gases including methane and carbon dioxide. While this should be managed with gas systems, landfills still release such emissions. Methane is especially problematic as it’s 80 times more harmful than CO2 and traps more heat in the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.
  • Leachate – again, there should be systems in place to manage leachate in landfills, but it can still escape. This toxic liquid can contaminate nearby lakes and rivers, which are drinking sources for wildlife. This can cause serious harm to animals and affect human health.
  • Toxins – medical, chemical, and electrical waste especially that ends up in landfill can release toxins as they break down. These can pollute surrounding ground, water, and air, harming human health and local ecosystems.
  • Foul smells – rotting waste and methane creates a pungent smell that’s incredibly unpleasant. This may affect those living nearby, especially on windy days, and any visitors to nearby attractions. In some cases, landfill sites make nearby land unusable due to the bad smells.
  • Limited space – there’s only a limited amount of space in the UK where we can dig big holes and bury waste, so alternative sustainable solutions need to be used where possible.

Divert your waste away from landfill

At Divert we understand the problems with landfill, which is why we divert all waste we collect away from landfill sites. Instead, we offer solutions to recover, recycle, and reuse rubbish where possible. It could be recycling glass from your pub to ensuring your broken fridge is recycled rather than dumped in a hole in the ground.

We provide a wide range of waste removal services for businesses and homes. Find a solution whether you need regular mixed recycling collections from your workplace or a one-off house clearance. Call 0333 444 0118 or contact us online today for a free quote for waste removal that’s diverted away from landfill.

dont dump. divert

Get a quick quote

Get a quick FREE quote for waste collection

  • Quick quote within 1 hr
  • All types of waste
  • Claim your free bins
  • Nationwide coverage