Coastal Landfills in the UK Cause Serious Risks
14 Feb 2023

Coastal Landfills in the UK Cause Serious Risks

There are more than 1200 historic landfills in coastal areas in England which are at risk of flooding and erosion and this is likely to increase in the future as a consequence of sea level rise. This creates a serious risk of polluting Britain’s beaches and waterways, a new survey from the Local Government Association Coastal Special Interest Group (LGA Coastal SIG) reveals. The survey concludes that 26 coastal councils have sites already spilling large amounts of waste onto cliffs and beaches, with many more likely to contribute to the pollution in the coming years.

Coastal landfill sites, inherited by councils are a large-scale problem on Britain’s coastlines. They are often on low lying coastal and estuary sites that have historically been an easy target for the disposal of toxic rubbish. Many of these sites are more than 100 years old which means significant gaps in understanding of what waste and risks are present. The majority of these contain plastics, chemicals and other waste, creating a “ticking timebomb”, threatening to leach pollution on beaches and into the sea, causing both environmental and ecological damage, threatening the health of humans and wildlife alike.

The majority of these contain plastics, chemicals and other waste, creating a “ticking timebomb”, threatening to leach pollution on beaches and into the sea.

In total, it is thought there are approximately 1,200 to 1,400 historical coastal waste dumps in the UK currently at risk of erosion and flooding, according to the LGA Coastal SIG. More than three-quarters of the landfill dumps were identified as being adjacent to designated environmentally protected areas.

In less developed coastal areas, shoreline management plans (SMPs) seek to allow natural physical processes such as erosion to progress. However, where a landfill is present, there may be a requirement to defend the shoreline to protect people and the environment from hazards that could be released. Therefore the presence of landfills can constrain SMPs.

At the moment, there are no recognised methods to assess the impact of eroding wastes into the marine environment, but the potential hazards arising from such sites may be geological in their timescales.

Another study, conducted by the University of Southampton, estimated the long-term impact of coastal processes under different sea level rise scenarios on three selected landfills and investigated different management options to prevent pollution, including removing the waste material. The case-study sites were selected from sites on the South coast of England from Lyme Regis in the west to Shoreham-by-Sea, 115 miles to the east. The study corroborated the risks presented by the LGA Coastal SIG survey, finding erosion and pollution risks equivalent to the “ticking time-bomb” in the survey.

On a positive note, findings from studies such as these will likely help inform the nation’s planned assessment on the impacts of coastal erosion and flooding at historic coastal landfill sites, which will help improve management of these sites in the future. The future of our coasts may well rely on the UK’s readiness to incorporate stricter laws on landfill in coastal ecosystems.

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