Renewed impetus on organic waste collections

At least seven major in-vessel composting units will be processing organic waste from kerbside collections by April 2004, an ENDS survey has found. The plants, with capacities of up to 38,000 tonnes per year, represent a new start for the sector, which has been stagnant since the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

The proposals - in Bath, Bexley, Cambridgeshire, Lancashire, Lichfield, North Lincolnshire and Tonbridge and Malling - come in response to draft legislation from the Environment Department (DEFRA) which sets out a new regulatory framework for composting of kitchen waste.

Progress in the sector came to an abrupt halt in 2001 after officials decided that composting of kitchen waste increased the risk of animal disease outbreaks. In response, councils such as Walsall and Lichfield stopped kerbside collections while others, including Bexley and Isle of Wight, used composts as landfill cover only.

DEFRA's new legislation, to come into force in March, will allow land spreading of compost made from catering waste provided certain conditions are met (ENDS Report 335, pp 48-49 ). The rules will push most operators towards costly in-vessel composting systems, operating at 60?C for two days. Stringent hygiene standards, with separation of clean and dirty areas, will be imposed.

David Nicholson, a Cleanaway project manager, regards the legislation as unnecessary, and says that no plant in continental Europe could meet the standards. "It's like these new gun laws - someone runs amok and suddenly all law-abiding citizens have to cope with onerous conditions placed on what isn't the cause of the problem in the first place."

Rob Chaddock, commercial manager at Waste Recycling Group, is concerned about the cost of meeting the new standards. "Composting of kitchen waste will be expensive. Where councils don't have onerous recycling targets they won't go in-vessel until the landfill tax makes it beneficial for them to do so," he said.

It is easy to see why some councils say they cannot afford to go in-vessel, the costs of which range from £30 to £60 per tonne, against landfill fees which are often only £20 per tonne including tax. A 10,000-tonne in-vessel unit costs around £1 million.

In spite of these problems, Mr Chaddock foresees a significant increase in interest in in-vessel schemes. WRG is involved in around a dozen proposals (ENDS Report 329, pp 19-20 ).

One scheme for which the company is bidding is in Bexley. The London borough has been trialing fortnightly collections of garden and kitchen waste for the past 18 months with some 4,000 households, collecting an average of 18 tonnes per week. This has been composted in two 12-tonne Scirocco
in-vessel units at Cleanaway's Rainham site.

Bexley is looking to roll out collections to all 86,000 households after the trial ends in July. This will require a new 20-30,000 tonne in-vessel plant.

In Kent, meanwhile, WRG is the preferred bidder for a 10-12,000-tonne unit in Tonbridge and Malling to take waste from a fortnightly collection scheme which should eventually cover 30,000 properties. Systems supplied by Gicom are among those being considered, and more details will emerge when a planning application is submitted later in January.

Other firms expressing interest in in-vessel composting of kerbside-collected organic waste include Biffa, Cleanaway and Sita. The latter will be running a 20,000-tonne scheme for North Lincolnshire council from the site of the Corus steelworks in Scunthorpe. Financed by a £1.4 million DEFRA award (ENDS Report 335, p 19 ), it will serve 40,000 households and marks the extension of a scheme that has been running quietly since 1993.

DEFRA awards are also financing a 20,000-tonne scheme in Lichfield, and an Orr Tec vertical composting unit in Lancashire taking kitchen waste put out in buckets from 7,000 terraced properties in Preston. Both schemes have just gone to tender. Orr Tec also has units in operation in Manchester, Sheffield, Lincolnshire and London, the last two involving kerbside collections.

The largest kerbside collection scheme in the pipeline is Cambridgeshire County Council's. Covering 115,000 households, this should start up by September.

By and large, project backers say that planning consent is not a major issue because in-vessel units tend to avoid the odour problems associated with open windrows and can easily slot into industrial estates.

However, community sector composting operations are facing a gloomy future because they are unlikely to be able to afford the costs of the new DEFRA rules.

Richard Boden, founder of Wyecycle in Kent, says that schemes like his cannot meet the "rigid and prescriptive" conditions. Wyecycle's plant reaches a temperature of only 45?C. "We're convinced it's as safe as any other system," he says, "but we're not sure we'll meet standards like clean and dirty areas and the need to weigh every single load. It's a nonsense, especially at our scale."

The EU landfill Directive targets, coupled with the statutory recycling/composting targets for English local authorities, are the main drivers behind composting operations. While many councils are now considering kerbside collections of organic waste, most are looking at composting only green waste, which can still be done in open windrows. Nearly 100,000 properties in Warwickshire, for instance, will have fortnightly kerbside collections of green waste from April.

Green waste collections are an effective means of boosting recycling rates, but they have the drawback of pulling material into the municipal waste stream which would otherwise have been composted in gardens.

Another option being pursued by several councils is composting of mixed household refuse in in-vessel plants. Both East Riding and Leicester, with WRG and Biffa respectively, are developing 30,000-tonne schemes. Some authorities are hoping such operations will count towards recycling targets - even though the material produced would not begin to meet the Composting Association's new standard (ENDS Report 334, p 33 ).

  • Vertical composting units:
    In a recent article (ENDS Report 335, pp 48-49 ), we suggested that VCUs would be unable to comply with the new requirements to separate the "clean" and "dirty" areas of a composting plant. DEFRA has since advised that, although the risks of liquid running through will be considered during the approval process, it is not against VCUs in principle.

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