'Nothing degrades in landfill' and other depressing facts

Friday 19th July 2019

Last night I went to a super interesting Funzing talk on the UK’s waste – no really! – given by the brilliant Livvy Drake at The Walrus in Brighton.

Livvy Drake, sustainability, The Walrus, Brighton. Sustainability, green news and events in Brighton & Hove
Some of the UK's landfill is shipped to Europe

To start with, we learnt some pretty depressing factoids about what happens to our rubbish and recycling in the UK. She then allowed us a break in which to attempt some sorrow drowning and we returned to learn about some ingenious products/services which are on the horizon.

Obviously Livvy talked about far more than I can squeeze into this little blog post and this doesn’t do her broad knowledge justice, but here’s a few bits I picked up from the talk and some pointers if you’re after more info.

Factoids learnt from talk

Disclaimer – some of these are VERY basic takeaways, enveloped by far greater and more complicated contexts

- One third of food produced globally is not eaten.

- NOTHING degrades in landfill. For things to degrade, an intense amount of heat is needed for a prolonged period of time. It’s all very well popping your ‘biodegradable’ coffee cup and Vegware from the classy pantry round the corner into the bin resting assured that it will leave no trace. But the sad reality is, it will sit in a landfill site surrounded by crisp packets, polystyrene and broken toys.

- The average UK household throws away £60 of food per month.

- The thin supermarket bags that so proudly claim to be ‘100% biodegradable’ are made from oil-based plastic.

- Methane (released largely by decaying waste in landfills and cow farts) is 25% more toxic than CO2.

- Cans are one of the easiest materials to separate out when being processed as they get picked up by magnets.

- Some of our landfill is shipped to Europe. This is because other countries have mastered recycling and therefore they are in need of our rubbish to create waste-derived fuels. How embarrassing.

- Glass bottles aren’t a great solution – they’re heavy which means they’re costly to transport = chunky carbon footprint. Plus it also uses a lot of energy to transform sand in to glass in the first place

- 2/3 of the UK’s plastic for recycling is sent overseas, including Brazil, Turkey, Poland and Malaysia.

These countries were initially keen to take on the plastic as some of it is valuable in terms of remodelling it into something new, e.g., furniture. But we sent over EVERYTHING including the useless unusable bits. This is now either being burnt and causing serious air pollution problems, or it’s simply sitting in a huge shame-filled heaps of recognisable branded bags and wrappers, gradually sliding its way into waterways.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has done a great series called Hugh’s War on Waste that goes in to lots more detail - fascinating but very troubling.

You’ll be glad to hear the UK government and the EU are investigating this and Malaysia has now started sending it straight back to the UK in protest.

Ingenious products/solutions. AKA the sigh of relief towards the end of the talk

- There are now 'card' boxes made of tomato leaves and stem. One hectare of tomato plants can be used to make the packaging for over half a million kgs of tomatoes!

- The Netherlands are making sweet wrappers out of beer dregs. I couldn't find more info on this, but I hope to add it in soon...

- Materials are more commonly being made from plant husks (the sturdy bit that protects the seed). Many husk products are now popping up on the market. Most recently I came across Huski Home at CleverGreen Festival. They are based over in Dartford and sell products such as travel cups made from rice husk and biodegradable grass straws.

- A water-proof paper now exists, called Earthpouch with a lining so thin that it’s compostable

To find out more about Livvy, visit

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