The increasing pressures of population growth and the rapid rise in consumerism since the 1940s have begun to put the capacity of the earth to assimilate waste under considerable strain. The initial solution was disposal of waste through landfill which soon gave rise to its own problems, as badly located sites have led to contamination of groundwater, infestation by vermin and a proliferation of wind-blown litter.
Small island developing states: Because of their reduced land area, small island countries are faced with the issue of locating secure landfill sites which pose no threat to water supplies or marine pollution.
Results from an annual survey of Waste Collection Authorities, Waste Disposal Authorities and Unitary Authorities show that over 90 per cent of waste handled by local authorities in England and Wales in 1996/7 arose from households and that, on average, each household produces almost 24 kg of waste per week. The survey results also show that landfill continues to be the most widely used method of disposal, accounting for around 84 per cent of municipal wastes in 1996/7.
In the European Union as a whole over two billion tonnes of waste are produced each year of which approximately 30 million tonnes can be classified as hazardous. Some 50-60% of the overall solid waste stream is landfilled, though the proportion of landfilled waste varies substantially in individual Member States and ranges from under 30% in Holland and Luxembourg to virtually 100% in Ireland, Portugal and Greece.
Illegal and mismanaged landfill sites in the EU were exposed at a Name, Shame and Fame seminar on landfills, organised by the European Commission in 2002. Following numerous complaints from the public about landfills, the Commission has taken legal action concerning 36 specific landfills in seven member states. Greece and Spain top the "shame" list (with 10 cases each), Italy (8 cases), Ireland (5 cases), the UK (Nantygwyddon site in South Wales), France and Germany (1 case each).
For a long time, people have worried that the world was going to run out of natural resources. It is now apparent that we have run out of places to throw things away. There is no place left where we can throw away exotic substances without affecting people or wildlife (upon whose well being we ultimately depend).
The reasons for the UK's high use of landfill sites for solid waste disposal (90% of solid waste goes to landfill) are both economic and physical. The UK contains thick impermeable clay beds which act as a natural liner. For other countries which lack this geology, and have different physical geography and climate, other waste disposal methods are more appropriate.