Quantifying macroscopic flow and transport in the unsaturated zone to address the long-term contaminant burden of waste repositories.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton


The usual way of managing solid waste in the UK has been landfill. We have more than 20,000 sites, containing 6 billion tonnes of waste, which are now full up. Landfills can cause major environmental problems, especially when water (from rain or streams) gets in and mixes with the waste to form a liquid called 'leachate'. If leachate escapes into the environment it can pollute ground and surface water, damage eco-systems and contaminate drinking water.

Modern landfill sites are containment systems, sometimes called 'dry tombs'. Plastic membranes line the base and the sides to control how much leachate seeps out. A cap reduces the amount of rainfall entering to reduce how much leachate is formed. Leachate which does form is retained at the base, where it can be collected and treated.

After landfilling at a site has stopped, it is covered and enters a management phase known as 'aftercare'. During aftercare, leachate needs to be collected and treated for as long as it presents a pollution hazard. Unfortunately, aftercare periods for modern landfills are measured in centuries. The engineered containment system has to keep working for all this time, along with active environmental control systems for gas and leachate extraction or treatment. Extended aftercare periods cause problems for operators, regulators and society, and are unacceptable in terms of sustainability.

A unique project in the Netherlands aims to rapidly improve leachate quality at three demonstration landfills so that they can be brought out of aftercare within the next decade. The project also aims to ensure that future emissions of leachate will be acceptably low - for ever, without any human intervention. If the project succeeds, it will lead to much more sustainable and cost effective methods for landfill aftercare.

Our research aims to provide some of the science required to underpin the project. It will be undertaken at the de Kragge landfill, where the operator will recirculate leachate and water through the waste. This will flush contaminants out into the leachate, which will then be treated outside the landfill. The success of this type of treatment depends on how the water or leachate flows through the landfill. If the flow is evenly distributed, the waste will be flushed more uniformly than if preferential flow paths allow the liquid to bypass some of the waste. (This is why it is sometimes possible still to read newspapers that have been buried in a landfill for 40 years). The spacing of preferential flow paths is critical. We calculate that if the flow paths are less than 0.5 m apart, contaminants will diffuse out of the waste fast enough to allow clean-up within about a decade. Flow paths that are more than 1 m apart are likely to limit the release of contaminant from the waste to the extent that a landfill might safely be brought out of aftercare before all the contaminant has been removed.

Our research will focus on understanding the nature of liquid flow and flow paths within the landfill, and their influence on landfill clean-up. We will install monitoring systems that can differentiate, at a scale of about 0.5 m, between flow occurring in preferential flow paths and flow occurring more evenly within the unsaturated zone of the landfill. Chemical tracers will be injected into the operator's leachate recirculation system, and we will monitor their flow through the waste. After interpreting the tracer data, we will develop and verify a suite of different models that track flow of contaminants and describe landfill clean-up. We will test a range of model concepts against our new data, to identify those that work best. These will then provide a framework for understanding the performance of the Dutch landfill flushing project and for evaluating any residual risks. The models will also provide a scientific basis for optimising the engineering of flushing, and the management of waste repositories worldwide.

Planned Impact

Society will benefit through the contribution we will make towards the success of the Dutch Accelerated Remediation Trial (DART), which is paving the way towards an alternative concept for landfill aftercare. Our research will generate an evidence base and predictive tools, which will be key components to inform the Dutch Regulator whether the remediation achieved by the operators will be permanent and long-lasting, thereby directly shaping Dutch Government policy towards their remaining landfills. In the medium term this will also influence policy makers in the UK and elsewhere in the world. A positive result will advance the case for the future use of accelerated stabilisation - either in special circumstances, or possibly more broadly as a sustainable development goal. The results from our research and DART will be world-leading, and could transform the landfill industry by developing and demonstrating a new approach to aftercare.

Our work will lead to better predictions of landfill aftercare timescales for a range of management strategies, which will be of interest to landfill operators worldwide. Our work will generate evidence for the UK Environment Agency to help inform their approach to landfill aftercare and licence surrender. In the UK It will enable operators to predict the length of time and cost of long-term aftercare and help fulfil regulatory requirements in proposing performance criteria for predicting how well a landfill is progressing towards completion and licence surrender.

Within Europe, the Landfill Directive has constrained member states' ability to take a flexible approach to landfill management. Our work will contribute to Defra's stated need for a review of landfill aftercare following Brexit. The UK will have an opportunity to take a more sustainable approach to landfill management, by considering policies that both optimise resource efficiency and create strategic sinks for materials that cannot currently be used, in a way that does not pass problems on to future generations.

Whereas Europe and many parts of the western world are reducing their reliance on landfills, many developing states and emerging economies, including China and India, continue to favour landfill as a least cost option. As these countries demand higher environmental standards, in situ remediation is likely to be a valuable tool, especially where landfills have created unacceptable risks to people and the environment. This will directly benefit health and quality of life.

Demonstrating the importance of what we learn in landfills will potentially have an impact on other types of repository, including low level nuclear waste deposits.

The knowledge generated by our research and DART represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for international landfill science. Within the UK, the need for large scale field trials of this type has been recognised for at least two decades by leading academics, industry and government (e.g. DoE 1995). Progress has been frustrated by the scale, cost and difficulty of such projects, and incongruence with current legislation. Remarkably, DART breaks this deadlock. While significant progress has been made in landfill engineering and process control, predictive power is severely limited by a lack of data at the field scale. We will develop novel measurement techniques and build new and improved models that will generate the type of knowledge that is so far lacking.

DART was justified on an economic platform as well as a societal one, it being cheaper to remediate than to continue expensive aftercare under Dutch rules. Undoubtedly, having the knowledge base to inform and optimise clean up (or advise against it where appropriate) will support economically more rational decision-making. Remediation without a strong science base risks inefficiency at best, ineffectiveness at worst.

DoE (1995) Waste Management Paper 26B: Landfill Design, Construction and Operational Practice


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Description Following closure, many modern lined landfills will require that active environmental control systems are operated over many centuries to prevent pollution of the surrounding water environment. Our research was part of an effort to accelerate the remediation of a landfill and shorten the "aftercare period" from centuries to one or two decades by flushing contaminants out of the landfilled waste. The extent to which flushing will remove contaminants is largely controlled by the extent to which flow through the waste is evenly distributed versus being concentrated into preferential pathways that bypass much of the waste.
We installed, into a landfill, a novel unsaturated zone monitoring systems capable of detecting the spatial scale of preferential liquid flow pathways. This was the first use of deep, inclined multi-port vacuum samplers installed contiguously within a landfill. The landfill was part of the Dutch sustainable landfill management trial and was subjected to enhanced leachate recirculation and flushing. We demonstrated that the instrument is capable of sampling discrete, unconnected, monitoring zones. We injected coloured fluorescent dyes (tracers) into the landfill and tracked their passage through the landfill. We established that there was rapid lateral (horizontal) movement of the tracer but that downward vertical movement was severely impeded. Very sharp discontinuities in the tracer front were identified in the vacuum samplers, confirming the presence and spacing of preferential flow paths.
Exploitation Route The outcomes of this research will be taken forward by landfill operators and environmental regulators in their approach to improving the remediation of landfills after closure.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Construction,Environment

Description Our findings regarding monitoring and tracers in landfills are currently being used in the Dutch full scale accelerated landfill remediation trial
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal

Description Briefing to Defra on role of landfill in achieving net zero
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to a national consultation/review
Description NWO Open Competition Domain Science - GROOT; Coupled multi-process research for reducing landfill emissions (CURE)
Amount € 2,670,000 (EUR)
Organisation Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) 
Sector Public
Country Netherlands
Description Landfill Aftercare Forum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A landfill aftercare forum has been established to provide stronger links between research and practice in the field of landfill management. The forum covers topics relating to improving landfill aftercare and includes oversees speakers to provide UK industry with an international perspective on challenges faced. The forum is open to anyone and regularly attracts over 100 delegates from a broad stakeholder group, including the public and private sectors, local authorities, consultants and academia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019,2020
URL http://www.landss.soton.ac.uk
Description Participation in monthly scientific 'core' team meetings overseeing research at the Dutch Sustainable Landfill Sites 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Participation in monthly scientific 'core' team meetings overseeing research at the Dutch Sustainable Landfill Sites. University of Southampton input is helping to influence the direction of research at these sites which is going to be essential to persuading regulators that the remediation taking place will be sustainable in the long term.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020,2021