Leafy landfill, fencedClick to enlarge
Landfills are the last waste management option, if waste can not be recycled.
Source: Bernd Engelmann / Umweltbundesamt

Disposing of waste at landfill sites should be regarded as the last resort for waste management and should only be done for non-recyclable waste. Such waste is disposed of in Germany at secure landfill sites, whose landfill must exhibit specific properties, depending on landfill site class. To this end, the waste is treated prior to being deposited, insofar as necessary.

Landfill sites yesterday and today

A brief history of landfill laws

The transitional period set by the EU Landfill Directive (Directive 1999/31/EC) expired on 16 July 2009 – meaning that henceforth all European landfill sites were to meet harmonized requirements, or be shut down. Germany had met these requirements for the most part by 2005.

The Landfill Directive, which was enacted in 2009, lays down requirements concerning ecofriendly landfill, such as those concerning landfill sites and the sealing systems for each class of landfill. The directive also contains provisions concerning the organizational structure of landfill operators, as well as personnel, financial security, and leachate and landfill gas collection. The directive furthermore contains provisions concerning the construction and monitoring measures that are to be carried out when landfill sites are shut down or are maintained after being shut down. Council Decision 2003/33/EC promulgates additional criteria and procedures for waste acceptance at landfills. For example, it lays down specific pollutant limit values for each class of landfill.

Although similar regulations had been on the books in Germany since the early 1990s (via the Technical Instructions Concerning Waste and Municipal Waste), it was nonetheless necessary to formally transpose the EU regulations into German law. This was accomplished, in 2001 and 2002, via enactment of the Abfallablagerungsverordnung and Deponieverordnung (waste storage regulation and landfill regulation), which were supplemented in 2005 by the Verordnung über die Verwertung von Abfällen auf Deponien regulation. Because many of Germany’s legally intermeshed landfill regulations were not particularly easy to understand, on 27 April 2009 greatly simplified omnibus regulation was enacted (Deponieverordnung vom 27. April 2009). This regulation has on a number of occasions been updated, and harmonized with the requirements in superordinate laws, whereby the most recent changes came into effect on 4 April 2016.

Older landfill sites that did not comply with the applicable regulations needed to be upgraded, i.e. they had to meet the relevant operational standards and install leachate purification systems. Upgrading was also necessary in terms of landfill gas collection and recycling, as well as for collecting and extirpating landfill methane (a greenhouse gas), usually by extracting energy from it. Filled landfill sections are covered so as to avoid methane emissions, keep precipitation out of the landfill and minimize leachate.

Landfill sites that could not be feasibly upgraded were for the most part to be shut down in July 2005, in accordance with the tighter German regulations that had come into effect. Insurmountable obstacles to such upgrading included prohibitive landfill sealing costs, or the fact that the properties of the ground beneath the landfill are immutable. In some cases, such landfill sites were allowed to remain in operation until July 2009, which was also the expiration date for the EU statutory period. Contrary to expectations, early closure did not disrupt waste disposal operations at all. Indeed, the reverse happened, in that early shutdown and cleanup of untenable landfill sites substantially reduced environmental loads on the soil, groundwater, and atmosphere and worked to the benefit of human health and the environment. It also greatly reduced the amount of preliminary processing of household-like waste required by law in Germany (likewise since 2005) and the steadily increasing amount of treatment needed for landfill waste.

The way forward

Germany’s current landfill capacity will be exhausted in around two decades. Some regions are already experiencing bottlenecks, mainly in class I landfills, and these have to be compensated by the construction of new sites. When waste is delivered to a landfill site, the waste must be tested to determine whether its pollutant limit values exceed those for the class of landfill site in question. This applies to all kinds of waste, whether it be inert, non-hazardous or hazardous. Some types of waste need to be treated in order to comply with the statutory limit values. This is legally required in Germany by virtue of the strict limits on organic substance concentrations in all household-like waste, and so on.

Biodegradable waste forms landfill gas, half of it methane, which is one of the worst greenhouse gases. Preliminary treatment takes the form of methods such as incineration at waste incineration plants in conjunction with heat recovery, or mechanical-biological treatment in conjunction with RDF production. The EU Landfill Directive also calls for the reduction of landfill gas emissions, and stipulates that the member states must submit to the European Commission their proposed strategies for reducing biodegradable landfill in three stages by 2016 and 2020. This process must be backed up by waste management measures, and reports are to be submitted in this regard.

Although the main purpose of landfill sites is to allow for waste disposal, landfill construction work also allows for waste recycling, particularly in cases where waste can be used in lieu of primary raw materials. Such measures include realization of the following: sealing and drainage layers; the requisite surface profile; and the recultivation layer. For the most part, mineral wastes such as construction debris, excavated earth and road construction debris are recycled in such cases. More than half of the household landfill sites (nearly 200 in all) that existed in 2005 have been closed down, and still today require massive amounts of material just to shut them down in an ecofriendly manner. The Deponieverordnung regulations in this regard pertain to safe recovery and environmentally sound disposal and thus avoid sham recovery.

Landfill sites will continue to be a valuable component of a functioning waste management system even beyond 2020, because, for environmental protection and economic reasons, across the board waste recycling still remains beyond our grasp. The pollutants contained in products and waste should not be allowed to accumulate in the economic cycle, but should instead be destroyed or sequestered whenever possible. Landfill sites are in this regard often the only economically viable option, the fact being that they are a pollution sink.

Insofar as waste is not definitively disposed of as landfill but is instead stored for more than 12 months, the storage site in question is referred to as a long term waste storage site. According to paragraph 23 of the landfill regulation, the construction and operation of such sites must meet the same requirements that apply to landfill sites. In reality, long term waste storage sites are landfill sites that are subject to limited storage periods.