Two MRFs owned by Veolia, in Alton and Portsmouth, have become the first to be approved under the ESA’s waste export accreditation scheme since it was launched in April.
The MRFs received approval in June after they were audited against the scheme’s code of practice. The company is waiting for approval for two others in Rainham and Greenwich.
The issue was front-page news in 2005 when Grosvenor Waste Management tried to illegally export 1,800 tonnes of household waste to Asia (ENDS Report 363, pp 16-18 ). The container labels said they contained waste paper. Several other cases have been through the courts since. The latest, in June, involved waste from two councils in Nottinghamshire (see pp 56 ).
There are about 70 MRFs in England and Wales, according to the Environment Agency, the "majority" of which export recyclables. Around 4.7 million tonnes of recyclables was sent abroad for recycling and recovery last year.
The ESA’s code requires MRFs to prove that exported waste is sent for recovery to an authorised treatment facility operating to standards "broadly equivalent" to those in Europe.
The shipment must be to a specification, including acceptable contamination levels, set by the treatment facility, and must comply with the waste shipment regulations. Tighter controls on exports came into force in July.
The MRF must also keep photographs of the waste before and after it is loaded into a container to prove it was exported properly. If the MRF sells waste onto a ‘dealer’ for export, the dealer must agree to meet similar standards and undergo annual audits.
But despite the need for the scheme - the Environment Agency welcomed its launch in a board meeting in May - only "a dozen" MRFs have applied for accreditation, says the ESA, including the two accredited Veolia sites.
So far applicants appear to be limited to the major waste companies. The ESA would not reveal which sites had applied, but Sita, Biffa and Grundon Waste Management are known to have put forward MRFs for accreditation alongside Veolia. Valpak intends to have its MRF in Preston accredited, but is currently going through the process of joining the ESA.
"Take up represents a significant proportion of exported materials," said Mike Walker, ESA’s policy director. "The scheme is new and is attracting progressively more facilities."
Jim Rushen, compliance manager at Sita, admitted the take-up was low, but said this was simply due to the scheme’s immaturity. "The big five [waste companies] are leading the way, but others will follow suit once they’ve seen how it operates and that it does improve compliance and the quality of exports."
But he admitted that a market driver for take-up "was missing". "We’re not at a point where buyers say they only want material from accredited facilities or that they will pay more for material from them because they can rely on its quality."
Participation would also be increased if the Agency endorsed the scheme, he said, and local authorities started demanding it.
Lee Marshall, chairman of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, said he was "not aware" of any local authorities requesting MRFs to seek accreditation, but that many councils are "looking at audit trails of the wastes they export".
"Having contractors accredited would help with that, but generally we feel they should do it themselves," he added.
At a recent waste exports conference organised by the government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), several waste companies said local authorities are not demanding change at MRFs because their only concern is meeting weight-based recycling targets.
There are fewer export markets for glass, but interestingly the report looks at the environmental benefits of different disposal routes. The UK could save 695,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year if it recycled the glass domestically for new cullet. This only drops to 673,000 tonnes if it is exported for remelt. But there is no CO2 saving if the glass is used in aggregates.
The government should realign policy to reflect these different environmental benefits, the report says. Packaging recovery targets could be changed, or low-quality materials from MRFs that can only be used as aggregate could be excluded from local authority recycling targets.