At the Landfill CQA blog we regularly receive requests for information from people who are developing landfills in industrializing nations where they are still largely unregulated.
They want to know what the essentials are for responsible landfill design and operation, and they have little inclination to read the detailed contents of much which is published in the developed nations guidance as it often seems unachievable within what they can afford to finance.
Also, with so much uncontrolled tipping they will often see themselves as unable to attract much waste anyway, if they are too far ahead of their competitors and have to make more than a fairly nominal charge to pay for environmental measures.
The message of this posting is that it is not in the long-term interests of the industry in these nations for operators to confine themselves to the absolute bare minimum of environmental protection and monitoring, and apply that slavishly everywhere.
The message must get home that unless operators can demonstrate that they are prepared to go further than the bare minimum required to show that their landfill practices are probably OK, where this actually matters they will lose all public trust.
If they are not prepared to go on to give a thorough demonstration that their practices are environmentally sound, then they will lose public support as local awareness of environmental quality develops.
History will then be repeated. Just as happened in the developed world within the last 20 years, they will have lost the trust of the local residents. Once that occurs, it will be difficult for their politicians, in a few years time as their national economies develop, to avoid the very prescriptive and not necessarily always essential, requirements of detailed legislative rules, By rules I mean those such as are in the EU Landfill Directive.
By “industrializing nations” we mean growing economies and rising prosperity, and in these conditions, as wealth grows, so will the environmental awareness of the population. A wealthier public will, in time, come to require the strictest imaginable conditions on landfill operations regardless of the circumstances, if they see the land despoiled by tips.
Draconian measures applied late, once much environmental damage has been done in any locality by poor landfill practices, will not be in the best interests of environmental protection. Politicians and lawyers are not good at making flexible regulations on complex environmental matters, and “one size fits all” usually means much miss-spent money, and effort; which if applied elsewhere could be far more beneficial to the health and welfare of the population.
There are plenty reasons why there should be debate within the industrializing nations about whether it is a better technique one way or another to allow wastes to degrade in highly contained, highly controlled sites, or whether instead the products of degradation should be allowed to be diluted and dispersed into the environment.
There can be some interesting technical debate, once environmental scientists and waste experts apply their minds to his. However, there should not be an unnecessary degree of polarisation on these issues. Some sites will always require full containment, others will not, depending on many local geographic, geological, and climatic factors, to name just a few.
There is no perfect containment site – a containment barrier always leaks to a lesser or greater degree, and will break down in time, and in reality we don’t know with any accuracy how long that time is likely to be.
The objective should be simply to keep the products of wastes in the landfill until they have degraded to a harmless state.
Equally, there is no such thing as a perfect dilute and disperse site. Instead there is a range of possibilities varying from a reasonable degree of containment to a rather low degree of containment, and the best type of containment to use in any particular situation will always depend upon a number of factors. Perhaps, the most important factor is the vulnerability of the surrounding environment.
The consideration of containment in big landfill sites versus less engineered dilute and disperse sites is perhaps the best example of the need for flexibility.
The issues for operators and regulators are not whether it is technically better to contain or technically better to dilute and disperse.
The real point is that whichever method is to be used, it must be demonstrated to be an environmentally sound way of managing the wastes that the facility is designed to cope with.
That means spending money on surveys and monitoring before the landfill site is developed. Quite probably what should be done is considerably in excess of what is currently required for regulatory purposes in most industrializing nations.
It means being prepared to concede that if it is not possible to demonstrate fully that containment is not needed, then containment should be required (while conversely accepting that containment is often not necessary).
This may not be welcome news to operators, but unless they heed this warning, the writing is on the wall.
If waste management operators, anywhere, truly want to build lasting businesses from operating environmentally sound landfills. If they aim for landfills to continue to be used as the low cost option, and the main way of waste management in their countries, then those in charge of landfills had better make sure – starting right now – that they are demonstrating that they are doing it properly.