A photo of Londoners walking past piles of trash during a 1979 garbage strike.
Londoners walk past piles of trash during a 1979 garbage strike. The question of where to take Britain's trash has re-emerged in the Brexit era. John Glanville/AP

A new “No Deal Brexit” threat emerges in the U.K.: overflowing piles of garbage and livestock waste.

Does Britain’s future stink? Emails leaked to The Guardian from the U.K.’s Environment Agency suggest that it may. The agency is currently in the process of trying to predict—and prepare for—what might happen if Britain leaves the E.U. without a deal in place on March 29. The answer isn’t pretty. If a No Deal Brexit (one that involves the U.K. leaving the E.U. without any agreement in place) goes ahead, the agency’s staff suggested in internal emails, Britain could very soon be filled with heaps of rotting trash and animal feces.

Alas, this was not a metaphorical threat. Since agreements used for international trade would become invalid overnight, both the millions of tons of trash Britain exports annually and the livestock it sells internationally would have to stay on an island that doesn’t have space for them, stuck in the country due to the default cancellation of the country’s existing export agreements. The Environment Agency fears that trash depots and containment space for “livestock slurry”—that’s poop—would very soon be filled to overflowing. Putrefaction and foul run-off would follow. “It could all get very ugly, very quickly,” an unnamed EA source said.

The idea of Britain degenerating into a pestilent midden thanks to a political crisis is an alarming one, but it comes at a time when unsavory and outlandish projections about the possible outcomes of Britain’s No Deal exit from the E.U. are coming thick and fast. Such is the climate of division in Britain right now that the trash-apocalypse leak isn’t even causing major waves. Those anxious about Brexit no longer have any hair left to pull out, while die-hard No Deal supporters are largely greeting the prospect of the country being poisoned by animal slurry this April with a skeptical shrug.

That is partly because the idea of mounds of dung dotting the country is unquestionably alarmist talk. It’s meant to be. As Britain hurtles towards March 29 without anything approaching consensus, the odds that the U.K. will leave the E.U. without any deal in place are becoming increasingly likely. (Literally so, in fact: In a country obsessed with gambling, bookies are accepting bets on the Brexit process.) Employees in government departments forced to prepare for this eventuality—probably too late—are more than a little spooked. They could well be leaking doomsday predictions in hope of encouraging the country as a whole from swerving away from the cliff face.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the danger of these predictions coming true isn’t real. Indeed, a Brexit garbage crisis was foreseen years ago. The U.K. now ships more than 3 million tons of household waste to the E.U. every year, where it gets burned in energy-producing incinerators. Much of it comes from the more populous and rubbish-producing region around London, where landfill space is particularly dear.

The trash issue would be just one, particularly pungent potential side effect of No Deal. In the long term, Britain would thrash out new trade deals and international agreements, a process that could take years. In the meantime, No Deal risks majorly disrupting supplies of food and medicine, potentially turning regions of Britain near the ports into zones of permanent truck gridlock and, according to local government in Kent, leave dead bodies uncollectable. British goods could be unexportable to the E.U.; institutions across the country that deliver critical care are already stockpiling food. In a bid to make this outcome less terrifying, British Revenue and Customs announced yesterday that it would suspend most customs checks “for a temporary period” if there is a No Deal Brexit. That in itself seems like it has the makings of a smuggling crisis, but at least it will help assuage people’s fears of going hungry or without medication—for now.

Britons, oddly, aren’t panicking as much as you might expect. That’s because after months of brinkmanship and instability, it feels close to impossible to work out what is really going on. The British government hasn’t helped. It’s been trying to use No Deal as a bargaining chip with the E.U., showing by its preparations that it is indeed prepared to countenance an outcome that, while disastrous for Britain, would also be pretty bad for the remaining European Union members. The hope is that fear will induce the E.U. to cut a far more advantageous agreement, ruling out an eventuality that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is (at least tacitly) keen to avoid even as it (also more or less tacitly) threatens it.

The other hope is that the threat will scare British MPs, twisting their arms to support May’s hugely unpopular deal out of fear of the alternative. Last month, the U.K. parliament actually voted to rule out a No Deal Brexit, but this vote is non-binding and wouldn’t necessarily prevent it. As the clock runs down to March 29, something big is about to happen, but no one is quite sure what.

This is a high-risk strategy. A right-wing faction in Britain—with narrow support nationally but great influence in the Conservative Party—has been insisting that No Deal will be both very smooth and a great opportunity for Britain. Furthermore, the public at large is so fatigued that a strain of apathetic yearning for the whole thing to be over—by any means necessary—is creeping in. As the deadline nears, a No Deal departure seems simultaneously ever more probable and ever less likely.

That apparent contradiction might help explain why people aren’t too worried about the prospect of living among phantom piles of filth. It’s because the rot is already here.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Coronavirus

    The Post-Pandemic Urban Future Is Already Here

    The coronavirus crisis stands to dramatically reshape cities around the world. But the biggest revolutions in urban space may have begun before the pandemic.

  2. A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a boarded up building in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Governors from coast to coast Friday told Americans not to leave home except for dire circumstances and ordered nonessential business to shut their doors.

    The Geography of Coronavirus

    What do we know so far about the types of places that are more susceptible to the spread of Covid-19? In the U.S., density is just the beginning of the story.

  3. Perspective

    Coronavirus Reveals Transit’s True Mission

    Now more than ever, public transportation is not just about ridership. Buses, trains, and subways make urban civilization possible.

  4. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  5. Coronavirus

    The Coronavirus Class Divide in Cities

    Places like New York, Miami and Las Vegas have a higher share of the workforce in jobs with close proximity to others, putting them at greater Covid-19 risk.