IN a field outside Colchester, curious shreds of colourful plastic, fabric and paper mark the final resting place of the stuff of everyday life. Small birds pick at the compacted earth around each fluttering scrap. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Below them lies tonne upon tonne of rubbish, compacted down and mixed in with layers of soil. Bags and bottles, cans and wrappers, rubble and cardboard, is jammed into the earth. Materials derived from every continent, fashioned into useful objects and then discarded, are entombed here. The landfill is a mass grave of sorts.
A dustcart thunders across the site, scattering the birds. It reverses into position and releases a cascade of bulging bin bags into the midst of the vast earthen expanse. Job done, the truck pulls away in search of a new load. And almost before it moves off, a monstrous 45-tonne juggernaut carried on vicious-looking metal-cogged rollers charges over the fresh heap of rubbish, crushing it into the dirt. As the day stretches on, dustcart after dustcart offers up bags collected frome homes and businesses to the crusher, before earth is spread over the top, readying the field for the next day.
The Bellhouse site is run by Cory Environmental, one of the UK's waste treatment and disposal firms. The company collects rubbish - up to 250,000 tonnes each year - from Colchester and across north-east Essex, and takes it to the landfill to be buried. This is no mere pit, however. Built into the 15 to 30-metre-deep holes left by ongoing sand and gravel extraction is a carefully engineered chambered tomb. Each of the "cells" is cut down into the impermeable London clay and then individually lined with metre-thick layers of re-engineered clay. This keeps contamination from the rubbish locked inside and out of the wider environment.
Despite its graveyard qualities, the landfill is not a dead place. The rubbish refuses to lie down and die without a fight. Pipe networks are installed inside each cell to draw off rain water that has sunk through the waste and become contaminated. This is no problem at Cory's Bellhouse facility. However, an older landfill next door, now pleasantly grassed over, has a special treatment plant on top of it to draw off and deal with this contaminated water.
On the other side of the road that bisects the site, a power station has recently opened, running on the other major pollutant associated with Bellhouse -methane. This gas is produced when organic matter - mostly kitchen and garden waste - is broken down by bacteria underground. At Cory, this methane is drawn off to power the plant's twin 1.4-megawatt engines to provide sufficient power for between 2,000 and 3,000 homes.
And, finally, a falconer is employed full-time to ensure no seagulls plague the site. He is very effective, as the empty skies at Bellhouse attest.
Bellhouse has been used as a landfill site for 26 years and has enough space to keep going for another 15. But this approach to dealing with rubbish is falling out of fashion. The amount of waste produced in the UK is rising, and new, more sustainable, ways of dealing with the problem are being planned. Almost everything we do creates rubbish. As with most people living in an increasingly disposable society, once we throw something away we simply forget about it. The landfill is a repository for those nasty little secrets of modern life. However, the Government is getting increasingly nervous of the long-term consequences. This is a problem that is not going away.
More than 434 million tonnes of waste is produced in the UK every year.
That's a rate that would fill a building the size of the Albert Hall in less than two hours. Household waste accounts for 30 million tonnes of this. Each one of us throws away the equivalent of our own body weight every seven weeks. London alone produces 17 million tonnes of waste a year.
A typical family throws out two dustbin bags a week. All of it needs to be disposed of, and the business of doing so can be lucrative. From the small private fleets of dustcarts that compete for waste-disposal contracts to the landfill-owning companies, there is money to be made from rubbish.
Taxation provides local authorities with the ability to meet collection costs. Cory charges each truck arriving at Bellhouse according to the weight of rubbish that gets dumped there.
The Government, in part compelled by European legislation, is regulating the process with an increasingly heavy hand. There is a growing view of landfill as a last resort, as fears for the environment grow. Many landfill facilities adjacent to major cities in the UK will close in the next five years. Few new ones will be created. This is not because there are no appropriate sites (the aggregate extraction industry is relentlessly pitting the country with many suitable holes in which rubbish might be dumped), but because the Government wants to encourage a more sustainable approach.
To promote this, the tax of pound;18 a tonne on waste taken to a landfill site is set to rise to pound;21 in April and will continue to climb to deter dumping and meet Brussels-set landfill targets of recycling and composting - at least 30 per cent of household waste by 2010 and 33 per cent by 2015. Some local authorities are eager to encourage individuals to play their part. In the London borough of Barnet, people can be fined pound;1,000 if they do not recycle rubbish, while in Thetford, Suffolk, more than 500 households have been issued with "red cards" for failing to recycle, after which their rubbish will not be collected.
Simply reducing the amount that is thrown away in the first place is the best way of managing waste. This means cutting back on packaging and reusing products that are regarded as disposable. A little over a third of household waste - glass, cans, papers and plastics - could be recycled, but only 10.5 per cent is currently reused. Another third of our waste is organic - from our kitchens and gardens - and hence could be composted or incinerated to generate power. But only 3.9 per cent is composted, and 7.7 per cent used for power generation. Only the final third has nowhere else to go than a landfill site -yet that's where 77.7 per cent of UK municipal waste goes. This will change.
Recycling seems the most attractive alternative. Metals and glass can be melted down; some plastics can be turned into granules and then used to make new products; and paper can be pulped and reused. But recycling comes at a price. The equipment needed to transport, sort and process the material is expensive, and there has to be a market for the recycled products to make the exercise economically viable.
Composting also sounds good, producing material that can be used as fertiliser, but again it's not cheap. Two plants that Cory wants to build at Bellhouse - a mechanical biological treatment plant that could handle 250,000 tonnes of waste a year, and a 50,000 tonne anaerobic digester, both of which will reduce the organic content of waste - will be major investments for the company. Experts warn that the cost for the UK of meeting the new European targets will be high, perhaps up to pound;10 billion by the end of the decade.
The money in rubbish is already attracting criminals, and organised crime is said to be about to move into the recycling industry. Some recycled waste is already falling into the wrong hands, with rubbish being tipped illegally in the countryside or dumped in developing countries after the money to process it has been pocketed. British rubbish, including toxic waste, is winding up in Indonesia, China and other developing countries.
In European countries that enforce rigorous environmental laws, such as Switzerland, rubbish looks very different to our own, with far fewer recyclable items thrown away. The fact that the Swiss bury just 7 per cent of their rubbish tells us much about their society in comparison with our own.
The waste of the past can also reveal much about history. Archaeology is, to a large degree, a study of rubbish. In the Museum of London's archive, there are some 30 million bits of rubbish stored in 150,000 cardboard boxes. Each year, excavations add another 1,000 boxes. The shelves literally stretch for miles. This great warehouse contains 6,000 years of history locked in waste. Bits of pot, bone, stone and metal provide an insight into the lives of the people who shaped them, used them and then threw them away.
Our ancestors had very different ideas when it came to waste disposal. In the Stone Age, flint chippings, produced during tool-making, were left lying around the campfire and tossed away without a thought. But as people came together in permanent, substantial settlements, more care had to be taken. The Romans were meticulous with their rubbish, burying it outside of the city. They were also keen on recycling, with two sites showing where Londoners recycled their bottles on an industrial level.
Medieval citizens were not so fussy. They tended to dig holes in their backyards or fling refuse into the streets. Rubbish was also a handy landfill material that was used to develop the waterfront along the Thames.
Even so, each ward had to employ "rakers" to collect the rubbish and dump it in the country. By the 19th century, as the city expanded and industry developed, municipal rubbish collection became increasingly necessary, although people continued to throw things into pits behind their homes.
Millions of tonnes of coal was also burned in the city every year, and the resulting mountains of ash were collected by "dustmen".
For the archaeologist who finds a slew of rubbish, it can be a gold mine of information. From the debris, they can divine much about people's diets, their working lives, environment, habits, interests and links with other cultures. Some finds stand out - the 17th-century coconut shells or the 18th-century stone Maori axe from Southwark, where they had presumably been discarded after being brought to the capital by sailors.
However, it is the everyday items that are most telling. A randomly selected box pulled from one of the archive shelves reveals a host of animal bones found in a Victorian garden - the dinner of the family who lived in the house that once stood there. An adjacent box is filled with the ill-matched, but cared for, set of china crockery they once ate those meals off. In another, a Roman ear scoop - a tiny metal object that was once scraped around the ear of a Londoner who died more than 1,600 years ago.
Buried in the landfill in Colchester is a snapshot of 21st-century life.
There is much about our culture that gets thrown into our bin bags. The extent of the site tells us about our seemingly boundless capacity to consume; its changing content tells us about our mounting fears for the environment.
* Collect aluminium cans at school and sell them to a recycler.
* Encourage your school to buy recycled paper and ask students to do their "rough" work on used paper. Cut down on photocopying and try to make greater use of technology that doesn't require paper.
* Make sure unwanted IT equipment is recycled or reused.
* Set up a compost heap for the school's organic waste and then use it for gardening. www.schoolsgarden.org.uk
* There are many teaching aids available, such as those produced by Waste Watch, which was the source for many of the facts in this article. Its website has information on how to become involved in the Schools Waste Action Club and the Waste Education Support Programme.
* Many waste disposal companies welcome school visits to local landfill sites. www.coryenvironmental.co.uk
* Eight billion plastic bags are given out by UK supermarkets every year - the equivalent of 133 per person.
* Some 460,000 tonnes of plastic bottles are used annually.
* Three billion polystyrene cups are dispensed by vending machines in the UK every year.
Plastic is a ubiquitous component of any landfill. The many different sorts have widely varied properties that determine how they are used and how they might best be disposed of. Some can be recycled or burned, but some are almost indestructible.
Plastic bags made out of low-density polyethylene could take hundreds of years to break down naturally. Thrown away, they can pose a threat to the environment through their sheer persistence. In South Africa and Bangladesh, laws now ban their distribution, while in Ireland they are subject to a special tax, which has prompted a collapse in demand.
Some 6.8kg of polystyrene is used per person every year. It can be recycled and the content of a single vending cup is sufficient to make a pencil. In Mali, an informal recycling network means that almost all polypropylene - used to make packaging, milk bottles and other containers - and PVC, which is used for drink bottles, is recycled.
* More than six billion glass containers are used in the UK every year - that is 330 per family.
* Just over two million tonnes of glass bottles and jars are thrown away - 38 per cent is recycled.
* The energy saved by recycling two bottles is enough to boil the water for five cups of tea.
Bottle banks are now commonplace around the country and recycling plays an important role in the industry. There is no shortage of the natural resources required to make glass, but the process uses a great deal of energy. Recycling reduces that significantly.
More than half of all glass collected for recycling in the UK is green.
However, most of the glass manufactured in the UK is brown or clear. Green glass tends to be imported and this glut can have a negative impact on the profitability of recycling.
Glass deposited in landfill sites does not break down and can make the land unusable once the facility is closed.
* On average, paper and card makes up 30 per cent of household waste - the equivalent of six trees per household every year.
* For every tonne of paper recycled, 13 trees are saved.
* Five million tonnes of paper is buried in landfill sites every year.
Paper has been used in the UK for five centuries and today the country is the world's fifth largest consumer.
Most of our paper originates from wood pulp produced from sustainably managed European forest. It can be recycled five times before its fibres need replacing. Sixty six per cent of the UK's paper has been used before.
This is a much higher proportion than is usual across Europe. Not only does recycled paper result in fewer trees being felled, but producing it uses up to 70 per cent less energy and much less water, too.
* Each year, each person in the UK uses an average of 240 steel cans.
* A fifth of the food sold in shops and restaurants is thrown away.
* Two million computers are buried in landfill in the UK every year, along with about 2.3 million fridges and 2 million cars.
* Thirty per cent of the 40 million tyres thrown away go into landfills.
* A million tonnes of clothing is discarded in the UK annually - only 200,000 tonnes get recycled.
* The equivalent weight of 70,000 double-decker buses in soiled babies'
nappies is thrown out every year.
* Ollie Recycles is a child-friendly site about recycling www.ollierecycles.comuk
* School communities can "go green" with the help of the Global Action Plan charity www.globalactionplan.org.uk
* The Eco-Schools Programme aims to improve the school environment www.eco-schools.org.uk
* The British Glass site explores glass recycling www.recyclingglass.co.uk