London: Sparked by surging oil, a dramatic rise in the value of old plastic is encouraging waste companies across the world to dig for buried riches in rotting rubbish dumps.
Long a symbol of humanity’s throwaway culture, existing landfill sites are now being viewed as mines of potential which, as the world population grows, could also help bolster the planet’s dwindling natural resources.
Golden haul:A garbage dumping ground in New Delhi. Photograph: Madhu Kapparath / Mint
“By 2020 we might have nine billion people on the planet, we could have a very big middle class driving millions more cars, and we could be in a really resource-hungry world with the oil price climbing and a supply situation in Libya, Russia and Saudi where natural gas is limited,” said Peter Jones, one of Britain’s leading experts on waste management. “It is those drivers, those conditions, which will encourage the possibility of landfill mining.”
In Britain alone, experts say landfill sites could offer up an estimated 200 million tonnes of old plastic—worth up to £60 billion (Rs4.88 trillion) at current prices—to be recovered and recycled, or converted to liquid fuel.
As many oil analysts predict, oil prices will stay above $100 (Rs4,410 crore) a barrel, waste experts in America, Europe and across Asia have been conducting pilot projects to recoup old plastic and other waste materials.
Prices for high-quality plastics such as high-density polyethelenes, or HDPE, havemore than doubled to between £200 and £300 per tonne, from just above £100 a year ago, according to experts in the industry.
With this in mind, leaders of the world’s waste management industry are planning to come together in London in October for what is being billed as the first “global landfill mining” conference.
“Once plastic is in a landfill site, it pretty much sits there doing nothing—and the beauty of that is that you’re able to go back and recapture it in the future,” said Peter Mills, a director of waste and recycling company New Earth Solutions Ltd, who is scheduled to speak at the conference.
“There are some really buoyant prices around because plastic is all manufactured from oil, so as the raw price of oil goes up, every commodity derived from it goes up accordingly.”
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, the amount of household rubbish thrown out across the world is expected to rise to about 3 billion tonnes a year by 2030 from 1.6 billion tonnes in 2005—or about 1kg per person per day in 2005.
Many of the world’s rich countries send about half of that trash to landfill, but OECD projects that rate will fall to 40% by 2030 as governments promote recycling—of materials such as metals, glass and paper—or incineration to generate heat or electricity.
“Over a period of a very long time—many decades—we have had a policy of burying whatever we can in landfill sites—so there are valuable resources in those sites,” said Steve Whatmore, of Orchid Environmental Ltd, a waste and recycling firm.
Landfill mining—digging in dumps for valuable materials—is hardly a new concept, and already viable for some.
Images of poor, often homeless people scavenging waste to sell from landfill sites in Asia and South America have already provided evidence that there is money to be made from other people’s rubbish.
William Hogland, a professor in environmental engineering and recovery from the University of Kalmar in Sweden, also points to previous instances of dumpsite mining in Israel in the early 1950s where the soil—enriched with rotting waste—was recovered and recycled to improve soil quality in orchards.
“Several pilot studies have been carried out for research or pre-feasibility studies in countries in Europe, but also in China, Japan and India,” he said.
For global waste experts, not everyone’s rubbish is the same: a region’s dumps show characteristics relating to the culture, historical development and economic climate.
“For example, landfills in Sweden dating from the 1960s have a lot of waste building material, reflecting the construction boom of that era,” said Hogland. “And other landfills have very specific waste—like those used by vehicle breakers—which have high concentrations of aluminium, copper and iron scrap.”
“The value of these materials varies daily with global market prices, and today there is considerable demand for scrap metal from China, for instance.”
But in Britain, it is in the millions of tonnes of plastic that people threw out in a pre-recycling era that experts see a potentially lucrative future.
That potential is clear to Chris Dow, managing director of the first so-called “closed loop” recycling plant in Britain able to recycle plastic bottles to a standard high enough for re-use as food packaging.
Closed Loop London is one of only six similar plants around the world—in Austria, Germany, Mexico, Switzerland and the US—and processes polyethylene terephthalate, or PET plastic, used for water and drinks bottles, and HDPE. It has the capacity to recycle 35,000 tonnes each year.
A passionate recycler, Dow is convinced there is value buried in rubbish dumps, but angry that talk has turned to investing in technologies to harvest it rather than focusing on stopping more plastic from being dumped now.
“Just imagine the resources that are lying in those landfills—it could be incredible,” he said. “But the insane thing is that we are talking now about investing millions into tapping into a resource under the ground, when the real tragedy is that every week we’re still dumping tonnes and tonnes of plastic into more landfills. It’s an act of vandalism against the environment.”