Waste disposal

Disposal of waste material into the marine environment includes the regulated discharge of wastewater and the disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. Solid wastes include disposal of dredged material from capital and maintenance dredging.

The environment agencies throughout the UK impose strict regulations and controls on discharges to the sea. Although there are around 215 marine disposal sites for dredged material in the UK, only about 100 are in use at any one time. The amount of material disposed of (as wet weight tonnages) has remained relatively constant in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over time. Environmental pressures are well documented and monitored by the relevant agencies and can include organic enrichment and the introduction of contaminants and smothering from waste disposal.

Waste disposal is dependent on the sea’s ability to assimilate wastes. We used the income generated through licensing of discharges and disposal as an indicator of investment and therefore economic value: income from licensing includes about £0.3 million for waste disposal (2007 data) and £9.1 million for water discharges (2007/08 data).

The disposal of waste also has a positive economic benefit to communities where it allows industries to function. The maritime transport sector, for example, is reliant on shipping access to the coastline and without dredging of navigational channels (supported by disposal) this sector would either be limited or face costly alternative means of disposal. In 2007/08, employment in the licensing of water discharges provided an estimated £6.0 million GVA in the UK, reflecting additional social benefits from the activity.

It is unlikely that demand for disposal will decrease. However, there is increasing pressure from the various environment agencies to minimise disposal into the marine environment. An Environment Agency Technical Advisory Group is attempting to produce a protocol to allow beneficial uses of dredged material, such as use in contract fill and for constructing soft and hard flood defences, rather than classifying all material as waste.