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The University of Southampton

University engineers produce new industry guidelines on environmental risks of landfill

Published: 3 December 2018
Spittles Lane Landfill
Spittles Lane landfill in Lyme Regis is on an eroding cliff with waste falling onto the beach below

Coastal engineers, waste management and pollution researchers at the University of Southampton and Queen Mary University of London have highlighted the increasing environmental risks associated with coastal landfill sites in the face of climate change.

Rising sea levels may flood the landfills, flushing pollutants into the environment, whilst erosion could release waste onto beaches to be washed into the sea. There are around 2000 historic landfills in England and Wales located in flood plains or in areas affected by coastal erosion.

As well as being expensive, protection of coastal landfills can be at odds with shoreline management plans may which seek to allow natural processes to occur, or undertake managed realignment of the coastline wherever possible. 

The University of Southampton was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to study three sites in the South of England all of which present different challenges to coastal management teams. Spittles Lane landfill in Lyme Regis is on an eroding cliff top which has undercut the landfill and resulted in waste being released onto the beach and into the sea. Wicor Cams landfill in Fareham is a low-lying site which has a mixture of ad hoc sea defences, and Pennington Marshes landfill in Lymington is limiting options to realign the coastline.

The project built on industry guidance produced by CIRIA – The Construction Industry Research and Information Association in 2013.

Working with interested parties, including Local Authorities and the Environment Agency, the University researchers outlined options to help manage the risks faced by landfill sites on the coast including improved sea defences against rising sea levels, additional monitoring or even removing the landfilled waste. The cost of taking the necessary steps to mitigate risks can run into millions.  Removing all the waste from Spittles Lane landfill could cost between £4m and £6m, repairing the sea defences at Wicor Cams could cost up to £1m, whilst the costs of safely managed realignment of the coast near Pennington Marshes landfill could cost £30 to 40m. A landfill project being undertaken by SCOPAC (Standing Conference on Problems Associated with the Coastline) has confirmed there is no clear funding mechanism available to local authorities to address these issues.

As a result of this research, CIRIA was funded by the Environment Agency to issue supplementary guidance to Local Authorities and industry on the management of coastal landfill sites. The Southampton team worked with researchers from Queen Mary University of London and SCOPAC to produce this supplementary document which highlighted the absence of funding sources and the need to address regulation of waste eroding from coastal landfills. The researchers also found significant potential gaps in information on present erosion rates and impacts of sea level rise on future erosion at specific sites together with the need for greater understanding of the amount, character and impact of waste that could be released from each site.

Professor Robert Nicholls of the University of Southampton said: “The geological timescale of coastal landfill means that this problem will not solve itself and we have to start addressing flooding and erosion of landfills now, otherwise this will be a major problem in the future”

Professor Kate Spencer from Queen Mary University of London said: “If these sites erode, solid waste including plastics and asbestos would be released to our beaches, whilst flooding with sea water has the potential to release further pollutants even though the waste has been buried for more than 50 years.”

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