Volcanoes – the ultimate waste disposal solution? Not so fast.

Ever wondered why we can’t just chuck our rubbish into the fiery depths of a volcano and bid farewell to the world’s waste problems? Believe it or not, this is a popular search on the likes of Google with countless articles exploring the idea. Whilst it may sound like a straightforward fix, there are a number of hurdles standing in the way.

Before we delve into this further, let’s consider some alarming waste statistics from recent years; according to the Gov.uk website, “It is estimated that the UK generated 40.4 million tonnes of commercial and industrial (C&I) waste in 2020, of which 33.8 million tonnes (84%) was generated in England. The latest estimates for England only, indicate that C&I waste generation was around 33.9 million tonnes in 2021.”

Huge numbers that climb year after year, signalling an urgent need for innovative solutions beyond our traditional waste management methods.

Enter volcanoes, nature’s natural furnace, with over 1500 potentially active volcanoes worldwide. An ideal scenario would be a custom-built system where waste is funnelled directly into the volcano consumed by molten lava and disintegrated. Simple? Not quite, here’s why:

  • Quantity vs capacity: While 1500 volcanoes may sound ample, when you factor in the 8.1 billon people on Earth, each generating waste, quickly 1500 doesn’t sound like a lot!
  • The right type: Not all volcanoes are the same! The type of volcano would need to be a ‘Sheild volcano’ – slow-erupting that contains lava lakes that gradually spew out onto the Earth. Sadly, they’re a rare breed.
  • Temperature matters: Lava at 2000 degrees can melt most household materials; food, paper, plastics, glass and some metals, but 2000 degrees won’t touch materials such as steel, iron and nickel.
  • Toxic fallout: Why don’t we separate wastes and only dump materials that can be burned with lava? Volcanoes naturally give off a number of toxic gases including chlorine, carbon dioxide and sulphur which can damage plant life and cause breathing problems for those that live nearby. That, mixed with additional gases produced by burning waste will only increase the damage and risk to human health.
  • Engineering challenges: Transporting waste to the volcano or building infrastructure to do the work is a dangerous job! Lava lakes are structured with a crust of cooling lava and molten, If rocks were disrupted and were to fall onto the surface of the lake, the crust will be broken causing an explosion. In other words, we’d need to build a team of Flash superheroes to build the waste dumping machine needed for the task.

Whilst the idea of volcanic waste disposal is an interesting concept, it’s clear that the devil is in the details. With landfills reaching capacity and space running out, we’re left searching for alternative solutions to tackle the mounting waste crisis.