Unlocking the resource potential in Europe s 150,000+ landfills


Since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, Europe has been disposing of out-of-date materials in waste dumps known as landfills. Even in member states that in recent times have developed recycling programmes, this disposal option has often remained important, or at least it was just a few decades or so ago. Today, the continent, therefore, has a vast amount of landfills. In fact, estimations by several academics suggest that there are between 150,000 and 500,000 historic and active landfills in the EU-28, many of which are located in urban and semi-urban environments.

Turning the landfill problem into an opportunity
It is a well-known fact that landfill deposits may cause a host of environmental implications, ranging from local pollution concerns and land use restrictions to global impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the reason why the EC Waste Framework and Groundwater Directives prescribe that preventive measures have to be taken for landfills in order to keep pollution from spreading and contaminating the groundwater. Hence, the dominant EC perspective on landfills is that they are seen as an end station for obsolete materials and substances that we need to be protected from. This is also strongly reflected in the EC Landfill Directive, which advocates “isolation”, “final closure” and “post-monitoring”.

However, this paradigm does not take into account that the majority of Europe’s landfills are not state-of-the-art, sanitary landfills but rather waste dumps without any modern environmental protection technologies. This implies that the intended protection towards EU citizens is not so evident. Given that expensive remediation measures eventually will be needed to avoid far-reaching environmental and health effects, many of these waste dumps and landfills impose major (future) costs on the general public. For instance, OVAM the Flemish Public Waste Agency (Belgium) recently spent 80 million euro of tax payer’s money on the remediation of just 5 problematic landfills, where landfilled material was excavated, transported and re-landfilled in a state-of-the-art sanitary landfill. For most EU member states, deploying such extensive budgets is difficult and the currently available clean-up funding schemes are largely insufficient, especially if one realises that the extrapolated (cumulative) remediation cost for the EU-28 as a whole could be as high as 0,1 to 1 trillion euro. The solution for this problem can be (partially) offered by a comprehensive Enhanced Landfill Mining programme.

Enhanced Landfill Mining
Through Enhanced Landfill Mining (ELFM), defined as “the integrated valorisation of landfilled waste streams as materials and energy, using innovative transformation and upcycling technologies, and respecting the most stringent social and ecological criteria”, the vast resource potential of Europe’s 150,000+ landfills could be unlocked while the landfill sites are simultaneously remediated. Such an integrated strategy would drastically reduce landfill remediation costs, regain valuable urban land for more prosperous activities and inject additional resource circularity and resilience into the EU’s economy by bringing back the billions of tonnes of previously abandoned materials and energy resources to work.

Municipal Solid Waste landfills versus Industrial mono-landfills
ELFM is relevant for both Municipal Solid Waste landfills and so-called ‘”mono-landfills”, containing one specific type of a metal-containing industrial residue (such as bauxite residue (red mud), goethite, phosphogypsum, or other types of metallurgical tailings, sludges and slags). With regard to Municipal Solid Waste landfills, ELFM involves the complete excavation of the landfilled waste, the separation into different fractions, the preprocessing into directly recyclable fractions and a Refuse Derived Fuel fraction, the advanced thermochemical conversion of the Refused Derived Fuel fraction and the upcycling of the subsequent thermal treatment products in clean syngas and low-carbon building materials.

In the case of industrial residue landfills, ELFM targets the excavation and zero-waste valorisation of the residues, which implies both the metal recovery and the subsequent transformation of the metal-free mineral residues into low-carbon building materials. Hence, ELFM allows to transform the EU-28’s landfills, particularly those in urban environments, from a threat and a major (future) cost into a (present) resource recovery opportunity. Similarly as for urban mining, Enhanced Landfill Mining of industrial residues helps shielding the community from foreign export quotas and price fluctuations for critical metals.

Furthermore, the developed ELFM-derived technologies such as two-stage plasma gasification and vitrification (instead of traditional incineration) and inorganic polymer production can also be adopted to fresh streams of Municipal Solid Waste and as such contribute to a more sustainable Urban Metabolism. The same remark is valid for the new metallurgical systems that are developed for ELFM of industrial residues.

The future of ELFM
However, as corroborated by the official response of the European Commission (28-7-2015) to a Written Parliamentary Question I recently asked (E-007864/2015), Europe does not have a clear strategy with respect to landfill mining. Landfills remain stuck in the “dump regime” of a linear, produce-consume-dump economy. Furthermore, the European Commission acknowledges that it has not yet made any kind of cost estimate of the total landfill remediation bill for the EU-28, nor does it have any confirmed data on the precise amount, the content (Municipal Solid Waste/industrial residues), the type (waste dumps/sanitary landfills) or ownership situation (private/public) with respect to Europe’s 150,000+ landfills. Therefore, to initiate Enhanced Landfill Mining in the EU, a paradigm shift is urgently required in which landfills are taken out of the “dump regime” and are re-considered as resource reservoirs awaiting their valorisation (Figure 2). ELFM is part of a wider view of a circular economy and is perfectly complementary to urban mining and recycling in general, as well as with primary mining and substitution solutions.

For ELFM to prosper, Public Waste Agencies need to create the legal frameworks, in harmony with local urban residents living close to the targeted landfills and who need to be integrated right from the early start in new ELFM projects. ELFM can trigger technological innovation in a circular economy framework. The potential for local job creation, including both high and low skilled jobs, is also clear, while private businesses are ready to take part in this broadened circular economy model.

ELFM Seminar in theEuropean Parliament (20-10-2015)
However, the fact that landfill mining is not part of current EU policy and regulatory frameworks causes many uncertainties towards both public and private actors, regarding how landfill and waste regulations will be applied on this type of projects. Such uncertainties regarding the market rules strongly prohibit implementation, for one thing since they make it difficult or even impossible for (private) actors to foresee the outcome of their investments.

This is the reason why I have decided to set up a dedicated European Parliament Seminar on Enhanced Landfill Mining (20-10-2015), together with my colleague Mark Demesmaeker. The Seminar is co-organised by EURELCO, the European Enhanced Landfill Mining Consortium (www.eurelco.org), which is an open, quadruple helix network that supports the required technological, legal, social, economic, environmental and organisational innovation with respect to Enhanced Landfill Mining. EURELCO, which received EIP RMC status (European Innovation Partnership Raw Material Commitment), has 50 partners from 12 different EU-Members states, including many companies, Public Waste Agencies, civil society groups and a host of leading knowledge and research institutes. The vision of EURELCO is that “by 2020 Enhanced Landfill Mining is implemented EU wide as a key component of a resource efficient, circular and low carbon economy. The EU’s 150,000 to 500,000 landfills provide for a substantial part of the EU’s material, energy and land needs. ELFM has paved the way for breakthrough exploration, separation, transformation and upcycling technologies that are also used for recycling/urban mining of newly produced waste and industrial process residues.”

In order to discuss this vision we have set up a programme where leading EURELCO actors will debate the future of ELFM with Members of the European Parliament and European Commission.


European Parliament “Enhanced Landfill Mining” Seminar – 20 October 2015, 14.30-18h

Organisation: Hilde VAUTMANS (MEP, ALDE) & Marc Demesmaeker (MEP, EPP) in cooperation with EURELCO (www.eurelco.org)

Location: European Parliament

Registration (required): Through www.eurelco.org


Topic Speaker

Introduction Melanie Schultz van Haegen (Dutch Minister of Environment) (tbc)

Keynote 1: Enhanced Landfill Dr. Ir. Peter Tom Jones (President EURELCO)

Mining in the EU-28 – rationale,

opportunities and challenges

Keynote 2: Industrial residue Prof. Bernd Friedrich (RWTH Aachen)

landfills and ELFM: a metallurgical

industry perspective

Debate on ELFM for industrial Prof. Bernd Friedrich (RWTH Aachen)

residue landfills in view of EU Prof. Egbert Lox (Umicore)

supply risk for critical metals Mattia Pelegrini (DG GROW) (tbc)

Eddy Wille (Flemish Public Waste Agency, OVAM)

Keynote 3: MSW landfills and Yves Tielemans (Group Machiels)

ELFM: the Closing-the-Circle case study

Debate on ELFM for MSW landfills Yves Tielemans (Group Machiels)

in relationship to the EU Rob Johnson (Advanced Plasma Power)

Landfill Directive Kurt Vandenberghe (DG RTD) (tbc)

Prof. Roland Pomberger (Montanuninversität Leoben)

Prof. Rafaello Cossu (IWWG) (tbc)

Summary conclusions Prof. Joakim Krook (Linköping University)

Closing remarks Hilde Vautmans (MEP) & Marc Demesmaeker (MEP)

(moderator: Victor Dries)

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