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2.3 Topic e: Landfills

Landfilling is an unavoidable component of all European waste systems. In certain Northern European countries, less than half of the waste may be landfilled; while in southern countries like Greece and Spain, or Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland, virtually all waste finds its way to land burial. The European Union Draft Landfill Directive identifies three kinds of landfills: for hazardous waste, for municipal waste, and for inert materials. Monofills - landfills for one particular material - are also recognized in the directive.

In virtually every European country, reliance on small, largely uncontrolled municipal landfills was the norm twenty years ago; in many countries this is only beginning to change. Small municipal landfills, often in wetlands or low areas, are generally uncontrolled, do not require weighing of the waste, charge no fees, have no environmental controls, and are frequently burned over to reduce the volume of the waste. No cover is used, and closure is informal, if it takes place at all.

Within certain countries, grassroots and/or political concern over groundwater, soil, and health generally have led to an emphasis on more environmentally sound landfills. Supranational policy initiatives at the European Community level have strengthened this trend, contributing to a gradual shift from smaller, uncontrolled landfills, with largely unmonitored environmental and water quality effects and costs, to larger, generally regional systems with pollution control features. These "modern" landfills are carefully sited, and access and dumping are controlled and monitored. They typically require incoming waste to be weighed, and to be paid for on a per-ton basis. The characteristics of such state-of-the-art landfills are described in the Sound Practices section of this book.

Increased attention paid to environmental controls usually results in rising costs for landfill construction, operation, and closure; this in turn tends to force the economy of scale of newer, more environmentally sound landfills, upwards. The resulting regionalization of solid waste disposal is a significant factor in most European countries, and creates side effects ranging from the need to create regional solid waste authorities to the need to build transfer stations.

Design and construction of modern landfills is more expensive than simple dumping, and these facilities may also be difficult to site. Public resistance is less of a factor in Europe than in North America, but still plays a role in siting. Environmental controls push costs upwards. This pressures developers to build larger landfills, which serve a region rather than a single municipality and are typically more cost-effective. Regional landfills tend to be larger, more identifiable capital projects, and cost recovery usually requires a tipping fee. European governments do not always choose to recover the full amortized costs of construction and operation of landfills through the tipping fee, and these fees tend to be set in part according to policy objectives, such as discouraging open dumping. In some cases, landfill fees are arbitrarily set higher than costs to discourage disposal or force costs onto producers or generators; in other cases, they are price-controlled to encourage legal disposal and discourage illegal dumping.

The decomposition of putrescible materials in landfills produces landfill gas, a combination of methane and carbon dioxide. This gas can be vented, flared, or recovered for use, as described in the "Landfills" portion of the Sound Practices section. Some gas recovered at landfills in Europe is simply flared, while in other cases the energy is recovered. A tragic landfill accident occurred in 1993 near Istanbul, when an explosion of methane and other gases caused decomposed waste to flow out of the landfill, covering part of a settlement nearby and killing 39 people. In Izmir, Turkey, there is a landfill with newly installed gas capture capability.

There is also considerable experience in Europe with bioreacting landfills, in which leachate is recirculated to maintain optimal moisture levels for biodegradation to occur. This process is discussed further in the Sound Practices section.

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