Leaking landfills – a ticking timebomb as climate change hits?

Thousands of old landfills could leak contaminants into our waterways as global warming causes sea levels to rise, new research shows.
By Guy Shrubsole    |      Published:  01 Sep 2017    |      3 minute read

Sea level rises are increasing coastal erosion. 

Our warming planet is likely to cause global sea levels to climb even higher. This means that as climate change progresses, there is a growing risk of old landfills on coasts and floodplains becoming destabilised. The sea around the English coast has risen by around 10 cm since 1900.

There are around 20,000 historic landfills in the UK. They were dumping-grounds for our rubbish before modern waste regulations came into force.

Many of them don’t have proper linings to prevent decomposing waste from leaching out into surrounding soils. 5,000 of them [PDF] lie in areas at risk of flooding and coastal erosion – with some already starting to leach out their waste as sea levels rise. 

Last year I visited one such leaking landfill at Tilbury, on the Thames Estuary. 

A landscape shot of the River Thames with the Tilbury power station in the distance on the left bank
Tilbury power station
Credit: jayfish via Getty Images

I was accompanied by Dr Kate Spencer – Professor of Environmental Geochemistry at Queen Mary University – and London Waterkeeper Theo Thomas. We walked the footpath that winds along the Thames foreshore until we came to a beach that appeared to be composed of man-made rubbish. From where we stood, out to the ominous bulk of Tilbury power station, stretched 2 kilometres of waste.

Broken glass, bits of china, animal bones, old car batteries, bakelite light switches, old shoes, plastic bottles, textile waste, an old spoon encrusted in a coppery green patina… The "beach" crunched and clinked under our boots as we picked our way over a morass of glass and pottery – clearly dateable to the Anthropocene.

But this wasn’t just rubbish deposited by the waters of the Thames. It was clearly eroding out of the sandy banks next to the shoreline, lapped by high tides. The remains of a former sea wall, derelict and ineffective, could still be seen below the high-water mark. It was providing no defence at all to the hungry estuary, which had chewed away at the land to reveal layers and layers of landfilled refuse.

Some of this waste was clearly pretty old, and was showing little sign of breaking down. At one point, we strayed across a still-preserved scrap of newspaper bearing a photograph of 1930s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (pictured below).

Elsewhere, it was obvious the waste was more recent. And this was just the visible stuff – as academic research has shown, old landfills are also leaching out chemicals, polluting soils and watercourses.

Why was all this waste here? And why on earth had the old landfill been allowed to leak out, littering the shore and polluting the Thames?

I was determined to find out. So I contacted the local authority, Thurrock Council. They wrote back to say, “we do not hold the information you have requested. The Environment Agency is the responsible authority.”

So I contacted the Environment Agency. Their publicly available maps show that there are several historic landfills on this site at Tilbury. After several weeks, the Environment Agency got back to me - but their reply wasn't encouraging.

“We are not aware of any leaking/eroding of landfill waste into the Thames from either of the historic landfills," they wrote. "We do not maintain any tidal defences on the historic landfill sites… Our inspection teams have never reported that they have observed any issues with pollution or leachate when inspecting the defences or the sluice. As we are not aware of any leachate we are not aware of any studies into pollution levels. We are also not aware of any plans to remediate the leaking waste.”

They also sent over a more detailed map, showing the historic landfills remain undefended from tides and rising seas.

In other words, no-one is taking any responsibility for the huge amounts of waste that is now very clearly leaking out of the old Tilbury landfills.

Plastic pollution piling up in landfill
Credit: istock

And this is just one example. If – as the research suggests [PDF] – there are thousands of old landfills at risk of leaking their wastes into watercourses and the sea across the UK, then this is a massive, ticking timebomb.

It’s essential that the Environment Secretary commissions an urgent inquiry into the problem of leaking landfills.

And the government needs to get a grip on these 2 interwoven environmental disasters – the landfill legacy of a throwaway society, and the rising seas now encroaching upon them.


Updated version. Originally published on 20 February 2016.