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Coastal erosion and landfills

10% of England’s historic coastal landfill sites at risk of erosion
Trial pit in Hadleigh Marsh Embankment

Coastal erosion may release waste from one in 10 of England’s historic coastal landfills in the next 40 years, according to research from Queen Mary University of London and the Environment Agency.

Landfills in coastal areas

There are at least 1,215 historic coastal landfill sites in England, mostly clustered around estuaries with major cities, including Liverpool, London, and Newcastle on Tyne.

An investigation by researchers, published today (Thursday 16 November) in WIREs Water finds that 122 sites are at risk of starting to erode into coastal waters by 2055 if not adequately protected.

Historically it was common to dispose of landfill waste in low-lying estuarine and coastal areas where land had limited value due to the risk of flooding.

What’s in there?

Historic landfills are frequently unlined, with no leachate management and inadequate records of the waste they contain. This means there’s a very limited understanding of the environmental risk posed if the waste erodes into estuarine or coastal waters.

‘Unfortunately, there are a lot of unknowns here. Our research helps with the first piece of the puzzle: we now know where the high-risk sites are. What we know less about is what will happen when these landfills fail. Some of these sites include everything from coal ash, to micro plastics, to household waste. We don’t necessarily know what’s in there, and we can’t say with confidence what will happen when the contents are exposed.’

Professor of Environmental Geochemistry at QMUL

Landfill erosion and bathing water

The researchers show that more than one-third of England’s historic coastal landfills are in close proximity to designated environmental sites, and half of them are in or near to areas influencing bathing water quality.

Some historic coastal landfills, such as the East Tilbury landfill in the Thames Estuary, have already started to erode.

‘Although the majority of England’s ‘at risk’ historic coastal landfills are currently being protected from erosion, some have already started to erode and release waste. Climate change effects, e.g. sea level rise and more intensive storms, are likely to increase the number of historic coastal landfills that erode.’

Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London and lead-author of the research

Strategies such as excavation and relocation or the incineration of waste could mitigate the risk of contaminant release from historic landfills, but they are prohibitively expensive.

Click here to find out about the supermarkets and drinks giants that lobbied against recycling rules.

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