Characterisation tests new waste regime

Early indications suggest that the new waste acceptance criteria for landfill sites have not led to a hazardous waste "crisis". Companies are, however, having difficulty characterising their waste, some laboratories allegedly failing to conduct the tests properly.

The new rules requiring all waste deposited in landfills to meet waste acceptance criteria (WAC) came into force on 16 July. On the same day, new hazardous waste regulations replaced the old special waste regime, implementing the wider EU definition of hazardous waste.

The changes caused consternation in the waste management industry and talk of an impending "hazardous waste crisis" (ENDS Report 366, pp 20-24 ). Waste would not be able to meet the WAC, some argued, and this could lead to an increase in illegal disposal.

Early indications suggest that the predictions were off the mark. To a certain extent the situation has been eased by a flexible enforcement strategy - which saw a last-minute relaxation to WAC rules, including exemptions for "problematic" wastes.

"Compliance with the WAC has gone well," said Sue Hindle, the Environment Agency's hazardous waste streams manager. "There hasn't been a rise in illegal dumping and no new orphan waste streams have emerged."

The regulator is not alone in such views. "There's some concerns about what has happened to the waste we've turned away because it failed WAC or had not been properly characterised," says Stephen Roscoe, technical director at Grundon Waste Management. "But the majority of people haven't characterised their waste yet so are storing it." Grundon has seen the amount of hazardous waste arriving at its Bishops Cleeve landfill drop from "around 30 to three or four" loads a day since the regulations came into force, Mr Roscoe adds.

Gill Weeks, regulatory affairs manager at Cleanaway, agrees that companies are storing waste. "People are waiting for the Environment Agency's enforcement position to clear up. It isn't clear yet whether there will be any further exemptions from the WAC." Only two waste streams - spent pot linings from primary aluminium smelters and furnace slag from lead-acid battery recycling - are exempt at the moment because no available pre-treatment would allow them to meet the WAC and there is no alternative to landfill (ENDS Report 366, pp 38-39 ).

The Agency has received "around 30" applications for further exemptions, according to Ms Hindle. These included requests for exemptions for air pollution control residues, filter cakes, oily sludges and contaminated packaging, although many have already been rejected.

"The information that has been submitted hasn't been very good," says Ms Hindle, "and the justification by producers for why they should have an exemption hasn't been very convincing either. So we've taken a firm line and rejected many of them already."

The Agency has three months to determine the applications. Of the waste streams, APC residues look the most likely to get an exemption. Ms Hindle admitted that "some" do not have alternatives to landfill. Contaminated packaging looks the least likely, the Agency wanting better segregation of such materials and more use of "wash and clean" technologies and incineration.

The issue of exemptions is not, however, the only cause for concern. Getting more attention is the difficulty companies are still having characterising their wastes - over a month after the regulations came into force.

Mr Roscoe says this is mainly due to "very few producers having got their act together and done a proper analysis of their wastes". That position is complicated by some laboratories' failure to conduct tests properly. Grundon has had particular problems with leaching tests. "They've been analysing the contaminated water, not how much material's leached out," Mr Roscoe says. It has also had problems with test results for total organic carbon.

Cleanaway's customers have had problems conducting leaching tests for materials that fall outside the Agency's guidance. The guidance was issued in April (ENDS Report 354, pp 37-38 ). "How do you test something that isn't granular or monolithic?" asks Ms Weeks. "How do you do a test on a skip of mixed waste or a palette that's had chemicals spilt on it? There is no guidance for that."

The WAC also appear to be changing the inert waste market. Inert waste has to undergo characterisation tests to be disposed of in landfills, so to avoid the costs many producers are sending waste to sites exempt from waste management licensing. "Requiring leaching tests for inert wastes is ridiculous," says Mr Roscoe. "It's just encouraging people to go elsewhere."

This could cause problems for the quarrying industry, which says it is facing a shortage of inert waste for restoration due to "unnecessary and inappropriate" application of the pollution prevention and control regime (ENDS Report 365, pp 18-19 ).