Councils struggle with data, LATS audits show

Waste disposal authorities are not providing the Environment Agency with sufficient data to validate returns under the landfill allowance trading scheme. However, the Agency says there has been a notable improvement during the scheme’s first two years.

Local authorities are struggling to identify where their recycled materials are being sent for reprocessing, or whether any are being rejected, according to Environment Agency audits.

Under the landfill allowances trading scheme (LATS), local authorities have annual targets to divert biodegradable municipal waste from landfill (ENDS Report 355, pp 17-18 ). If they miss the targets they face fines of £150 a tonne.

The Agency will be auditing all 121 English waste disposal authorities (WDAs) over the next three years to assess LATS compliance.

So far, 24 WDAs have been audited. Only two have had their performance rated “to be improved”: Oxfordshire and Plymouth (see table).

But shortcomings have been identified for all authorities.

According to Martin Brocklehurst, the Agency’s head of environment protection external programmes, there are concerns over the low numbers of staff trained in Waste Data Flow – the system used to send in LATS returns – and the lack of written procedures on how data is collected, quality assured and reported. There is also little planning for job handover and confusion over what needs to be reported, especially in two-tier areas where waste collection and disposal responsibilities are divided.

However, the audits reveal other problems. Many authorities do not know where their recyclate is being sent for reprocessing, or if any of this recyclate is being rejected at materials recycling facilities (MRFs). As a result, councils could be reporting material as “recycled” when it is actually being disposed of, overstating their progress towards LATS targets.

For example, Hampshire’s audit says the authority should “clarify with paper reprocessors and green waste composters about contaminants, as little information is currently held by the WDA to explain rejects… or where recyclates are sent”. The Agency’s auditors are concerned that despite the council sending 76,800 tonnes of paper for recycling to two MRFs each year, it has no reported rejects, despite the facilities having high output specifications.

The council also sent 37,100 tonnes of green waste to seven compostors in the first six months of 2006/07, but the authority could only provide the Agency with reject rates for three.

In spite of this, the Agency classifies Hampshire’s overall LATS performance as “good” – one of a number of odd classifications. The WDA refused to comment on the audit.

Other authorities with similar problems include Kent, Surrey, Northamptonshire and East Riding of Yorkshire. Northamptonshire sends 165,000 tonnes of waste paper to China each year with no reported rejects.

The Campaign for Real Recycling, an alliance of reprocessors and environmental groups launched this year, has called for the separate collection of recyclables because co-mingled loads are being rejected due to poor quality.

Another issue of concern apparent from the audit reports is how local authorities are reporting waste when it is processed in another authority. There is a risk that tonnages are being either double-counted in LATS returns or not counted at all.

For example, the City of London collects commercial waste from a market which should feature in its LATS data. But as it takes the waste to another authority’s transfer station, it had “assumed that the other authority… includes the tonnages in its returns”.

Plymouth’s problems stem from having only recently appointed someone responsible for LATS. The council had not developed procedures to assure data quality before the audit.

Oxfordshire’s problems appear more substantive. It is “struggling to collect, quality-assure and report accurate and consistent waste data”, the audit says – especially for civic amenity sites. The council expressed surprise at this. “I am not sure the Agency audit picked up accurately what checks we do,” said Andrew Pau, head of waste management. “We have been audited very regularly and never had a problem before.”

According to the Agency’s Martin Brocklehurst, all the above problems are not unexpected because the scheme is in its infancy. It would also be wrong to see these issues as mirrored across all authorities as each faces a specific set of pressures and constraints. Overall, the Agency is satisfied with the returns it received in 2005/06, he said. “There is no evidence to suggest the numbers reported were other than the most accurate the local authorities could achieve.”

Improvements are already being noted in the data for 2006/07, he added. All WDAs have reached “level 35” – where the data has been externally verified and can be sent to the Agency for determination, “which in comparison to last year is amazing”. Mr Brocklehurst admitted some 50 authorities had since asked to change the figures, but said this was another sign of improvement.

“It’s not uncommon for an authority not to know the final destination of their recyclate,” Mr Brocklehurst said. In several cases this was down to the waste management companies not supplying information. This point was reiterated by the Local Government Association: “Disposal companies are quoting commercial confidentiality… preventing them from disclosing the end markets for the materials collected,” it said in a statement.

The Agency is working with the waste industry to resolve the situation. “Ultimately we can discount tonnages if we are not satisfied it is genuine recovery,” Mr Brocklehurst said.

The issue also appears on the Agency’s list of priorities for future LATS audits. Other issues include interpretation of the municipal waste classification, two-tier authority reporting, reject rates from reprocessors, MRF operations, and export of recyclates.