Contaminated green waste has ‘catastrophic’ implications for historic environment

Dr James Gerrard conducting a geophysical survey
Dr James Gerrard carries out a geophysical survey.

Archaeologists are calling for better regulation of green waste to protect the historic environment.

Research has found that the metallic contaminants in green waste is effecting geophysical surveys. These surveys are used by archaeologists to survey an area of historical interest. Unchecked, these contaminants could have a 'catastrophic' impact on understanding hidden history.

Green waste comes from organic and biodegradable household waste. Local authorities use green waste as part of their environmental strategies to reduce the amount of landfill waste. Composted green waste is increasing, commonly used by farmers as fertiliser on arable land.

However, current regulations permit up to 0.25% of composted material to be non-organic waste. This often includes metal fragments, batteries, plastics, glass and other materials. The research team argue that contaminants will increase over time as more green waste is added to the land. The increase in contaminants will interfere with the magnetic data identified by geophysical surveys.

Dr James Gerrard is from Newcastle University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology. He said:

Contaminated green waste is a significant and growing problem for archaeology.

In many cases, the results of a geophysical survey are the only evidence that there is something of archaeological interest below the surface. More stringent regulation and robust enforcement are needed to ensure that archaeologists can continue to rely on geophysical surveys when prospecting an area.

The research team looked at the area around a previously unknown settlement close to a Roman villa near Lufton, Somerset. Just before the first geophysical survey in 2011, the landowner spread green waste over the fields. As a result, the survey results were of poor quality. The survey was repeated in 2013, but there had been little reduction in interference in the intervening period.

The research is published in the journal Archaeological Prospection.

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published on: 13 July 2015