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Secrets of the shore: the landfill rubbish laid bare by the sea

How coastal erosion in Essex is revealing decades of human over-consumption and forcing us to reckon with our past. 

On the last day of summer this year, the geochemist Kate Spencer and I walked along part of the Thames Estuary in Essex, where a flat slick of water gives way to a muddy strandline at low tide. A crop field stretched out to our right, breaking into a sloping hill where the vegetation changed from yellow to green. “Someone once told me, quite a few years ago, that the landscape of Essex is a landscape of landfill sites,” Spencer said. “It should be entirely flat. If you can see a hill, it’s probably a landfill site. Most of the little hillocks are just rubbish.”

The hill she was pointing to was a landfill site that closed in the 1980s. We reached its crest and dipped down on to a shingled beach. Spencer, a professor at Queen Mary University of London, first came to this stretch one cold autumn afternoon ten years ago on a walk with her husband, and found a mile of detritus from the recent past: pottery, glass bottles, old newspapers, plastics. Two mudlarkers were busy rifling through. Spencer passed me a pair of blue vinyl gloves: “Don’t touch anything without them. If I see asbestos, I’ll tell you.”

Every day, six or seven metres of water flood this part of the Thames. The natural dilution effect, coupled with the estuary’s uninhabitable mud, has long made it one of London’s rubbish dumps. Spencer, wearing a practical hiking rucksack and her own plastic gloves, picks up a delicately eroded pair of nylon tights that move gently in the briny air. “When people talk about plastics, they think about microbeads – but the more ubiquitous microplastics are fibres from things like these, and our clothing.”

The tights, she said, must be at least 40 years old. One might think textiles and paper biodegrade with relative ease, but subterranean objects develop toxic afterlives. In a process known as “adsorption”, toxins cling to spongy materials; unearthed, they can spawn new polluting effects.

Coastal erosion has shorn away the riverbed’s side, exposing sedimented debris braided with roots and earth. “This is microplastic heaven,” Spencer said, touching the feathered edge of a plastic stalactite that protrudes out of the mud. She dusted its tiny particles off her gloved hand and walked further down the beach, finding car batteries, a pre-decimalisation packet of fruit pastilles, Marmite pots, asbestos sheets and light fittings. Like most historic landfills, this one predates modern environmental regulations, and its contents are unknown. The rubbish becomes older in the measure we approached it; acid batteries and glass pots of Boots face cream replace polyester fibres towards the shingle’s end.

The beach, an archaeological record of Britain’s recent past, became an object of fascination for Spencer and inspired her to spend the past decade researching the way coastal erosion is affecting old rubbish sites. Before we met, she explained over the phone how two environmental problems collide on this stretch of shoreline. First, there is coastal erosion caused by rising sea level, flooding and storm surges. In turn, this is forcing decades of human over-consumption back to the surface. I wanted to see the stretch of coast and, in my own way, to make concrete the sad alienation I felt during this recent summer, when at times it had been too hot to remain calm about Britain’s changing climate.

According to the Environment Agency, there are 19,706 historic landfill sites across England and Wales, though the actual number may be higher. Some 1,264 of such sites in England are in coastal and estuarine areas, many at risk of flooding or erosion. Each of the eight that Spencer has studied along the Thames is surrounded by a halo of pollution that leaches into the surrounding area. We were never supposed to see these forgotten objects again – but climate change is forcing us to reckon with decisions made in the past.

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Though coastal erosion is difficult for scientists to predict, the overall trend is clear. Twenty eight per cent of the English and Welsh coastline – 3,700km – is eroding by at least 10cm a year. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change estimates that 100,000 properties will be at risk of coastal erosion by the 2080s. Insurers remain reluctant to insure homes at risk of flood damage, and the public is poorly informed about the risks. A series of aerial photos of the East Anglian shoreline, taken over two decades by the retired mechanic Mike Page, show the scale of damage already inflicted: swathes of coast have receded and houses disappeared. Though its inhabitants might not wish to know it, Britain is slowly shrinking.

The relationship between erosion and climate change is twofold. Huge ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic have begun to collapse, in a phenomenon known as marine ice sheet instability. Climate scientists have had to revise sea-level rise estimates dramatically to account for this; one study published this year estimated the level of sea rise could be 2m by 2100. Higher sea levels create more aggressive storm surges, which in turn precipitate coastal erosion. A leaked 2019 draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a 100-fold increase in the cost of flood damage caused by storm surges in this century, and “extreme sea level events” every year.

“There’s a terrible irony in the fact that it’s the very infrastructure of the Fossil Fuel Age – the housing and office developments on the coasts, the roads, the railroads, the tunnels, the airports – that makes us most vulnerable,” writes the environmental journalist Jeff Goodell in his book The Water Will Come. Landfill contains the secretion of the fossil fuel age, the plastics and rubbish that we’ve thrown away as consumption has increased. Across Europe, scientists estimate there are tens of thousands of landfills placed in coastal and alluvial areas. “People building these sites just didn’t really consider the risks – coastal erosion wasn’t on the horizon,” Anne Stringfellow, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, tells me. Much of Europe’s waste was once dumped in cities. After the 1875 Public Health Act, which made local authorities responsible for rubbish, people began looking elsewhere for landfill sites. Coastlines are as far away as you can get without stepping into the sea.

The question of what to do with the historic landfills along England’s coast is unresolved, and the environmental consequences of waste resurfacing and filtering into the atmosphere are still unknown. Part of the problem, Kate Spencer explains, is that putting rubbish in the ground was a “200-year experiment” – with no sense of what might happen to the objects once they began to decompose. At the moment, most of the UK’s coastal landfill sites are contained behind sea defences, but these will become increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain as storm surges and floods increase.

Preserving England’s coastline will be expensive – but the costs will be emotional, too: as with many environmental challenges, the question is not whether we can afford to save everything, but what we can afford to lose. The environmental writer Meehan Crist characterises the loss suffered from climate change as its own particularly ambiguous form of grief. Like Alzheimer’s disease, it involves an object that is still present but becoming less recognisable by the day. “How do you mourn a home increasingly prone to flooding, but not submerged, yet?” she writes. The many photos of houses on the British coastline sliding ineluctably into the sea portray the uncertain sadness of watching the world as we know it slowly change beyond belief.

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At the beach’s end, Spencer said that you can find more objects dating from the 1940s and 1950s made from glass and metal; at the opposite end, plastic-rich fibres and textiles from the 1960s and 1970s are clustered on the shore. In this way it’s possible to trace society’s transition towards a throwaway culture of mass-produced plastics. “The Seventies weren’t a good time for fashion,’’ she laughs, pointing to a lurid cluster of polyester fabrics. “We used to joke that this was the demise of the East End rag trade.”

When scientists talk of climate change, they often refer to the Anthropocene, a term for the point at which humans began irreversibly to alter the surface of the planet. There is no better reflection of this era than the ubiquity of plastic. Scientists have found that plastic pollution is being deposited into the Earth’s fossil record, with contamination increasing exponentially since 1945. They say that after the bronze and iron ages, ours may be known as the era of plastic. Most of it becomes rubbish; an estimated 79 per cent of the world’s plastic waste resides underground, in landfill sites.

By the middle of this century, the Earth’s surfaces will be buried in microscopic layers of plastic waste. Two thirds of microplastic pollution are from fibres, such as those used in clothing. They choke fish, seep into the soil and are transported on the air.

It’s only now that we’re being forced to reckon with the sheer amount of waste we’ve created, and the consequences of putting it in the ground.

We stopped for a moment and Spencer lightly kicked an old-fashioned car battery made from lead. When the tide comes in, its toxins wash out. “You can’t put things like that in the ground anymore. Or, you’re not supposed to, but people still do,” she said.

Part of the problem with the waste created in the past century is that nobody can find a definitive answer for how long it will take to decompose. As the recent debate around plastics has shown, things don’t necessarily erode how you might hope.

Walking away from the estuary along a path edged with blackberry bushes, Kate Spencer talked about her grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and used to hide away the dirty clothing in her house when she grew unable to cope with washing it. “You’d be sitting on the sofa, and it would be uncomfortable, and you’d lift up a cushion and see all of this dirty washing. She wasn’t able to deal with it, but she was happy.” I reflected on our tendency to hide the things we don’t want to confront. When a person disappears into the mist of senility, the conclusion feels inevitable. But there’s only ever so much dirty washing a house can accommodate. And, like the consequences of environmental change, you can’t hide from it for ever.

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor. 

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone