Hazardous waste is going 'missing', says industry

Up to 700,000 tonnes of hazardous waste will go "missing" this year, according to leading waste companies. Hazardous waste is being misclassified and sent to non-hazardous landfills, the companies say - often deliberately. The Environment Agency is investigating several companies that are alleged to have flouted the co-disposal ban in this way.

Since 16 July, the co-disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous wastes has been banned, and hazardous wastes have to undergo treatment prior to being landfilled.

Since the ban, everyone from waste industry executives to Tory and LibDem politicians has highlighted the shortfall in landfill and treatment capacity for hazardous wastes. There are only eight merchant landfills able to take a wide-range of hazardous wastes (ENDS Report 356, pp 14-15 ).

Waste companies have now had three months to assess the impact of the ban. ENDS has seen industry estimates stating that between 200,000 and 700,000 tonnes of hazardous waste will go missing in the first year of the ban based on current inputs to landfills. To some, these are optimistic figures.

"There's a daily shortfall of hazardous waste going to landfill of 7,000 tonnes," says Adam Share, managing director of WasteGo, which runs the King's Cliffe hazardous waste landfill near Peterborough under a permit in the name of Atlantic Waste. "Where's it gone? It wasn't all cleared before the ban and it's not all being stored."

Many hazardous waste treatment companies share such views. "We would have expected to see a significant increase in the amount of material coming our way [because of the ban] - up to 10%," says Ian Carnell, associate director of technical operations at Cleansing Service Group. "And there isn't any evidence of that."

Biffa, Onyx and Shanks have also not seen the increases they expected. In October, they set up an informal "technical operators' group", along with other treatment firms, aimed at expressing such concerns to the Agency, and pressing for consistent regulatory enforcement across the country.

"People are just blatantly declassifying waste streams and are sending hazardous waste to non-hazardous landfills," says Mr Share. Disposal of waste soils in a non-hazardous landfill costs about a quarter of the amount charged by hazardous landfill operators, he says.

The Agency has been sent evidence of such activities, Mr Share says. This includes soil reports from contaminated sites whose waste is hazardous yet is being sent to non-hazardous landfills for disposal.

Another common practice, according to a senior industry source, is the reclassification of air pollution control residues, which are always "hazardous", as pulverised fuel ash, which is hazardous depending on its composition. The chloride from such reclassified waste could pose a risk to groundwater in non-hazardous landfills.

Agency officers are not doing "forensic" analysis of these wastes when they reach landfills so are unaware of the problem, the source says.

Some officers are even unaware of the new regulations - leading to hazardous wastes being disposed of in non-hazardous landfills by mistake, he alleges.

Meanwhile, Castle Environmental chief executive Roger Hewitt wrote to Sir John Harman, chairman of the Agency, in August, telling him of the "sham treatment" that is happening at transfer stations.

Some companies regard "treatment" as putting barrels of hazardous and non-hazardous waste into separate sections, the letter says. "This practice has been commonplace since 16 July 2004 and continues apace, with some of the larger more reputable companies now contemplating following suit, simply to compete."

The Agency is investigating several companies for allegedly flouting the co-disposal ban, including Yorkshire-based BCB Environmental, which runs the UK's largest independent transfer station for hazardous waste.

BCB managing director Phil Boardman says the investigation is likely to concern drums of waste sent to WasteGo's King's Cliffe landfill. Such problems will always arise due to the classification regime being "unclear", he says, and also because of the impossibility of checking every barrel of waste that comes into a site. "When you've tested 20 drums of an 80-drum consignment, sound judgement has to take hold."

Mr Boardman denies that there is a "hazardous waste" crisis as the larger waste companies suggest, any missing waste being the result of companies checking their waste streams and realising their waste was never hazardous.

Before the ban, BCB sent 500 tonnes of "hazardous waste" to landfill. Now it only sends 20 tonnes.

The Agency also denies there is a "missing waste" problem. "We are closely monitoring movements of hazardous waste," a spokesman said - although the Agency could not supply ENDS with data on hazardous waste movement trends following the co-disposal ban.

John Sweeney, Agency officer responsible for King's Cliffe, says he has asked WasteGo for evidence that 7,000 tonnes of hazardous waste is going missing daily, but has not been provided with any.

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