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School of Geography

Eroding our future – pollution from historic landfills threatens our coastlines

Coastal erosion

There are more than 20,000 historic landfills in England and Wales that pre-date modern waste management technologies. Research undertaken by Professor Kate Spencer shows that many are at risk of flooding and erosion and as a result, 30% of England’s protected coastline and bathing water catchments could be at risk of contamination.

Professor Spencer and her colleagues examined coastal historic landfills (CHLs) to assess how badly they have polluted their environment, and what the risk of future pollution would be under scenarios of climate change.

They found that more than 1,200 sites are at risk of tidal flooding, coastal erosion, or both. One in ten of these sites could erode by 2050 with major damaging effects to ecological health and environmentally sensitive areas.  

As a direct result of this work, there have been changes to coastal and waste practice and policy in the UK, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The waste industry has developed best-practice guidelines to manage the issue. Professor Spencer’s research has raised awareness among all levels of government, and with the public. The work has also led to the making of an award-winning documentary, watched by more than a million people.

Between 2011 and 2017, Spencer conducted research that was funded and supported by Arcadis, the Environment Agency (EA) and Essex County Council (ECC). Her work in partnership with Arcadis led to a Natural Environment Research Council Collaborative Award in Science and Engineering, gathering evidence to assess the pollution risk from CHLs to nearby rivers and estuaries. These risks are exacerbated by the rise in sea levels due to climate change and larger and more frequent and extreme hydrological events such as flooding. 

Funded by the EA, Southend Borough Council (SBC) and partnered by the ECC, Spencer investigated the potential for coastal realignment along the Essex coast. She discovered there are several CHLs dating from the 1930s, containing household, commercial and industrial waste. Coastal realignment involves removing current sea defences so that the sea realigns landwards. In this case, it would result in flooding or erosion of CHLs.  The project was partly delivered as a PhD thesis by James Brand.

What did the research reveal?

The projects led to a national baseline dataset to quantify the projected problems:

  • More than 1200 CHL sites face potential tidal flooding
  • 10% of CHL sites are at risk of erosion by 2050 if defences are not maintained
  • 30% of England’s protected coastline and bathing water catchments are endangered

The research showed not only that CHLs are a source of legacy contamination in the coastal zone, But that flooding and rising seas would release soluble and solid waste materials into the marine environment. The ecological impact of this would be disastrous.

What can be done to prevent this disaster?

The researchers were able to develop a new risk screening assessment method to help coastal managers and local government authorities identify the landfills that pose the highest risks. Officials are then able to focus their efforts where they are most needed.


The new knowledge and evidence provided has raised the profile of the challenge to the most senior levels in the Environment Agency and Defra.
— Mark Johnson, East Anglia area manager of the Environment Agency

Raising awareness for policy makers

Spencer’s team has reported findings to the United Nations, the Environment Agency, Defra, TEAM 2100 (Thames Estuary Asset Management) and local government authorities. This engagement has raised awareness locally, nationally and internationally. 

Changing practice and policy locally and internationally 

This research has directly informed local shoreline management practices in Essex and South Suffolk and the Thames Estuary.

As a result of Spencer and Brand’s work, both the Netherlands and Belgium have carried out national assessments of their landfill datasets to determine potential flood and erosion risk.

Changing industrial guidelines 

The research has also increased industry awareness and understanding. Organisations and events who have engaged with the research and changed guidelines and practice include: 

  • The Environment Analyst Business Summit: Waste Management
  • Construction Industry Research and Innovation Association (CIRIA), the independent, not-for-profit provider of good practice guidelines for the construction industry. CIRIA has developed “Guidance on the management of landfill sites and land contamination on eroding or low-lying coastlines, partly informed by Queen Mary’s findings
  • The Institute of Civil Engineers 
  • Arcadis

Increasing public engagement

At the national level, the profile and public understanding of the issue of CHL pollution have been raised by significant ongoing media coverage. As well as major newspaper, TV and radio interest, Spencer also contributed to ”800,000 tonnes: Waste Management and Recycling in Essex,” a National Lottery and Arts Council funded public programme of displays, site tours, and discussions run by Focal Point Gallery, Southend (1-29 February 2020).

Most notably, The Secret Life of Landfill: A Rubbish History, a BBC4 documentary based on this research, was broadcast twice (26 August and 1 October 2018), attracting over a million views.

The documentary won the 2019 Royal Television Society Scotland Award (Best Documentary and Specialist Factual: Science and Natural History) and was shortlisted for the 2019 Royal Television Society Awards (Science and Natural History) (RTS 2019) and the Grierson Awards Best Science Documentary (TernTV 2020).

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