Metals and plastics dumped before recycling era are valuable, writes Caroline O’Doherty.
Landfill sites closed for years may be reopened to extract valuable materials dumped before recycling became popular.
Environment Minister Denis Naughten says it is likely that applications for “landfill mining” will be made.
And while the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), which is the licencing authority for landfill operations, says no formal approaches have been made yet, they are “likely”, if profits can be made.
Millions of tonnes of rubbish lie buried in decommissioned landfills across Ireland, much of it unsorted domestic and commercial waste, dumped before recycling and sorting became the norm.
Aluminium from drinks cans is just one of the buried ‘treasures’ likely to exist in large quantities. Other metals, as well as plastics and scrap from IT equipment, could also make mining profitable.
Mr Naughten raised the issue when he addressed a seminar of waste-industry representatives recently.
“As a result of our throwaway culture, it would not surprise me, as Minister for Natural Resources and Exploration, that we could soon see applications by mining companies to reopen landfills to recover valuable natural resources that we just threw away in the past,” he said.
The EPA has been watching developments overseas, particularly in Belgium, the US, and the UK, where landfill mining, or plans for it, are at a more advanced stage.
“A lot of very valuable resources have been deposited in landfills in the past, and it is likely operators will seek to exploit these resources, if there is a financial return,” said an agency spokesperson.
Ireland’s dependency on landfill for waste management has reduced dramatically in recent years. The number of landfill sites still receiving waste is down from 25 in 2010 to just six this year.
Government policy, driven by EU directives, will further reduce landfilling and will eventually eliminate it through a combination of waste-prevention, recycling, and waste-to-energy plants.
However, decommissioned landfill sites remain costly to monitor and maintain, for many years after they are closed, because of the dangers of gas emissions from decomposing materials and water contamination from the buried metals and plastics.
Reopening them to harvest the reusable and recyclable materials could potentially pay for the maintenance costs and eliminate the need for monitoring in the long-run.
The idea would probably run into opposition in some areas, where long-suffering communities who put up with smells, traffic, and visual intrusion from active landfills were glad they closed.
The EPA said: “From an environmental perspective, the potential environmental impact of any such proposal would have to be assessed in detail and, if the activity was approved, all regulatory and environmental protection requirements put in place, before such an operation would commence.”
A detailed study on the potential for landfill mining in Scotland, published in 2013, has been examined closely by the EPA.
It concluded that such projects would be feasible, but would be complex and limited to specific circumstances, and would be unlikely to become widespread in the near future.
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