Last reviewed 30 October 2018

Many organisations are now implementing a zero waste to landfill policy. They may also have customers or contractors who are doing the same or considering such a policy. Yet, the term zero waste to landfill can create confusion as there is no one agreed definition of what it means in practice. Alan Field explains how to identify some of the complexities of what’s getting down to zero can mean.

The waste hierarchy

The notion of “zero waste to landfill” derives from the hierarchy of waste itself. The hierarchy is a graded approach to ensure the most optimum solutions for dealing with waste can be achieved. The best approach is to minimise the resources used for any product or process. Once resources are used, then reuse or redeployment of outputs should be achieved wherever possible rather than immediate recycling or disposal. Where this cannot be done then recycling is the next best option. If that is not possible or viable, then energy recovery from waste disposal is the next option and disposal of waste — such as landfill — as the final option.

So, are we wasting finite resources by generating waste in the first place? Have we explored every reuse option? Have we considered every recycling option, even those that may appear too costly at first blush? Failing all these options, have we considered recovery, ie processing waste so that it directly (or indirectly) generates energy, eg anaerobic digestion or incineration with an energy generation outcome.

The final option is disposal, and this often involves landfill. Landfill capacity is fast running out — perhaps as little as five or six years left in England for non-hazardous waste streams. There are also risks arising from landfill, such as the longer term consequences of leachate pollution and methane gas build up.

The Carbon Trust has pointed out there is real business benefit in reducing waste to landfill. In fact, it estimates that in the 10 years between 2012 and 2014 there was, in the UK, some 15% reduction in the volume of waste going to landfill. This may be due to a combination of landfill taxes and waste contractor costs making it an increasingly costly way to dispose of waste in landfill as well as pollution and wider sustainability concerns.

So, zero waste to landfill is a desirable outcome. However, it is a long way from zero waste itself and, indeed, diversion from landfill should not be an excuse to avoid reuse options and recycling solutions — this is a key point when both waste policy and strategy is decided upon.

Waste disposal — the villain of the piece?

In the hierarchy of waste, the disposal option is almost seen as the villain of the piece — and is often seen as meaning simply landfill. Yet, this may not be the only place where landfill may be utilised within the waste management process.

First, with any zero waste to landfill policy there needs to be a clear understanding of what happens to recycled waste: is some waste sent for recycling ending up in landfill? This can happen for all manners of reasons — sometimes further along the recycling life cycle itself. In the author’s experience, the producer of waste may inadvertently develop an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to recycled waste streams, even more than it might for disposal streams. Enquiries and confirmation need to be obtained on a regular basis from the waste contractor as to the efficiency of recycled streams: the producer of waste should at least consider making it a contractual condition to be advised by the waste contractor if any outputs in process go to landfill. Some producers of waste use their waste broker or other waste management advisor to do this on their behalf: this might be the FM professional in some cases. The key message here is that the producer’s Duty of Care is to understand the life cycle of each waste transfer until the point of destruction or recycling.

For waste streams where recovery processes are the most effective option (eg anaerobic digestion or incineration with an energy generation component) then there may also be components from the process ending up in landfill. For example, fly ash or bottom ash from an incinerator may end up in landfill (although there are complete or partial recycling options in some locations and operational circumstances for solid waste from incinerators). So, does a producer of waste consider solid waste from an incinerator as part of its zero waste to landfill policy and, if so, does it quantify its impact? Does it find out what quantities of such waste are involved and its impact within landfill? Arguably, the impact of ash compared to untreated waste being put into a hole in the ground is likely to be less in terms of pollution risks such as leachate but that needs to be clarified both for the particular waste ash concerned, the quantities involved and the particular geotechnical risks of the landfill site are going to.

This also assumes the producer of waste considers incineration a better option than landfill; while the answer is likely to be a qualified yes, incineration is still an option with an element of controversy in terms of gaseous emissions and other potential concerns. In other words, zero waste to landfill is a very important aim but not a cure-all to the minimisation of pollution.

Also, there may be assumptions made about disposal waste streams. For example, some feminine hygiene waste is sent to landfill, but some is also sent for incineration, often without energy recovery. In some areas of the UK, the producer of waste can make a choice as to which option it wishes to pay for. However, there are also recovery options in certain locations and these should not be missed, ie there might be some limited element of energy recovery that the producer of waste has not fully identified from its contractor.

If incineration without energy recovery has been chosen (ie disposal in the hierarchy of waste), the decision maker needs to be clear why this is better than landfill. The answer may be that the energy expended in incineration and the controlled gaseous discharges are a better balance of risk compared to the ground pollution issues of landfill sites. No one right answer is to be found but a policy decision should be made.

So, zero waste to landfill needs to be a policy decision that is based on careful metrics and not on assumptions.


  • Landfill is not a long-term option. It is expensive; it can create pollution, and, in the UK, landfill availability is fast running out.

  • Zero waste to landfill is a waste policy that many organisations now follow or are actively working towards.

  • However, the hierarchy of waste needs to be understood by each producer of waste in relation to its circumstances.

  • There may be unplanned landfill usage, eg particular “recycled” streams may not be fully recycled with some outputs still going into landfill after processing. The producer of waste needs to be aware if this is occurring with any of its recycling streams.

  • Not all of waste being sent for disposal is landfilled. Some will go for incineration and, sometimes, with no energy recovery process. These need to be measured.

  • Solid waste from incineration processes (whether there is energy recovery or not) can sometimes be landfilled. Again, the producer of waste needs to understand if ash or other solid by-products are being treated and, if so, in what quantities? Is this seen as being too remote from the zero waste to landfill policy or does the producer want to take it into account?

  • Zero waste to landfill policies can lead to a greater understanding of how all waste streams are managed by the producer’s waste contractors.