The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) is not given to making silly remarks, but its latest report, published in May, contained a serious howler. Discussing in just three paragraphs the extent to which waste minimisation could reduce the need for incineration, the RCEP concluded that "there is a disappointing lack of hard evidence that the environmental potential of waste minimisation has so far been realised in practice, still less that the claimed cost reductions have been achieved."
Not the least remarkable aspect of that conclusion was that the report's opening sentence had placed waste minimisation at the top of the waste management hierarchy. Perhaps the kindest comment that can be made about it is that there was evidently a mismatch between the RCEP's resources and its ambition to carry out in little more than a year a study on incineration that also took a serious look at other waste management options.
The signals from the Department of the Environment are that the report will be used to justify a policy shift in favour of incineration, and it would be unfortunate if the RCEP's comments on waste minimisation were regarded as in any way authoritative. For the truth is that countless studies since the mid-1970s have established the theoretical attractions of waste minimisation, and that plenty of case studies have been published - by the ENDS Report among many others - to show that those attractions have been realised in practice.
If waste minimisation is so appealing, the question which should be preoccupying the RCEP and policy-makers is why most companies have yet to take it to heart. An interesting insight in this area has just been provided by a new Institute of Directors' survey of 325 of its member companies (see p 6 ).
Message goes unheard
While complaints about excessive regulation are the flavour of the month, most businesses appear still to be driven predominantly by legislation in deciding when and how to react to environmental pressures. Only 7% of the sample regarded "internal business considerations" as a compelling reason to develop environmental policies and programmes. Commenting on this finding, the IoD acknowledged in something of an understatement that the waste reduction message has "yet to be fully absorbed", and that most firms still regard environmental pressures as more of a threat than an opportunity.
The message, though, does appear to have been absorbed by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Speaking at the official launch of Project Catalyst, a waste minimisation initiative in the Mersey Basin, on 2 June, Corporate Affairs Minister Neil Hamilton was confident that the theory of waste minimisation does work in practice. "More and more companies in the UK and overseas are finding that positive waste minimisation policies are saving them money. In other words, it is good for the environment and good for business."
The message, the Minister added, is so powerful that "it is hard to understand why all companies are not actively following it. This is probably due to a mixture of ignorance and scepticism. Many companies are simply not aware of the potential benefits of waste minimisation and, of those that are, many doubt that it would work for them. The sort of response that we get is: 'It's OK for those American companies' or 'It's OK for those big companies' but 'It'll never work here in the Mersey Basin or, at least, not for a little company like me.'"
These are not, to be fair, the sole explanations. In terms of the current market wisdom, it could be argued that the prices paid by companies for consuming energy, water and raw materials and for dispersing wastes into the environment are sometimes too low to attract management's attention to waste reduction. Many companies still rely on legislation to tell them what to do, but the regulatory stick may often be too limp or misdirected. And lack of information has been shown by many studies to be a crucial barrier to the uptake of waste reduction opportunities.
The first serious official attempt to put waste minimisation on the map in Britain is now under way. Two schemes, the Aire and Calder Project in Yorkshire and Project Catalyst, are at the heart of the initiative.
The Aire and Calder Project was launched in March 1992. It was prompted by a report from the Centre for Exploitation of Science and Technology (CEST) which warned that many firms, faced with regulatory pressures to improve their effluent discharges, were contemplating costly end-of-pipe investments without considering the scope for cheaper effluent reduction measures. CEST suggested that PRISMA, a Dutch project which identified a host of cost-effective waste reduction opportunities among ten companies, should be used as a model in the UK (ENDS Report 206, p 12 ).
Funds totalling £300,000 for the Aire and Calder Project were provided by HM Inspectorate of Pollution, the National Rivers Authority, Yorkshire Water and the BOC Foundation for the Environment. Another £100,000 has been chipped in by the participating companies. Just over a year later, their investment looks like money very well spent.
The Aire and Calder Project differs from its Dutch model in two important respects. One is its concentration in a single river basin, making it easier for the participating companies to share experiences. The second is the financial contribution which was required from the companies with the aim of enhancing their commitment to the initiative.
In March 1992, all 98 dischargers to the Aire or Calder were invited to a seminar intended to gauge their interest in the scheme. Only 35 sent representatives, and of these 25 expressed interest in participating. After further screening by March Consulting, the consultancy appointed to manage the project, 11 were selected as participants (see table ).
The project runs to the end of 1994, but its most intensive 12-month phase has just ended. This comprised three elements. First, monitoring of water use and effluent discharges was improved. Second, the processes at each site were audited to determine their contribution to its overall water consumption and effluent loads. And third, waste reduction opportunities were identified and the associated costs and savings quantified.
Measurement helps management
Better monitoring proved particularly crucial. Alan Fletcher (Director, Clean Technologies, March Consulting) told a seminar at the Institution of Mechanical Engineering in June that "it's a cliche that you can't manage what you don't measure. So we've been mildly surprised, to use British understatement, about the lack of knowledge of companies about how much water they used, how much effluent they generated, and what pollutant came from which part of the process."
According to Dr Fletcher, some of the participating companies had no or very inadequate water and effluent metering. Others had meters in, but sometimes in the wrong places. And too much reliance was placed on meters installed by the water company which sometimes proved to be misleading.
With metering improved all round, proper baseline data for water and effluent are now available, making it possible to set improvement targets and monitor progress towards them. The firms have been encouraged to use Montage, a software package originally developed by March for monitoring and targetting in energy conservation applications, for this purpose.
Progress in identifying waste minimisation opportunities has been excellent. Towards the end of March, more than 200 had been pinpointed among the 11 companies. And by the end of June the figure was well above 400. This is a better average per company than in the PRISMA project, although the total is dominated by Coca Cola/Schweppes and Horsell Graphics.
Low-cost opportunities"We've found very attractive cost savings, with environmental improvements coming from them, from good housekeeping and improvements in operational practices," says Alan Fletcher. "There are fewer - and they are taking longer to unearth - which are about fundamental new and cleaner technology." His current estimate is that 20% of the 400 or so opportunities involve good housekeeping and 60% operational changes. Only 20% will require deeper changes in products or processes.
Examples of the opportunities identified include:
More than 100 waste minimisation opportunities have been identified at the works. Replacing nitric acid with hydrochloric acid recovered from several points in the plant could save £12,000 per year. Improved pH control at the site's effluent treatment plant could save a similar sum. And £44,000 could be saved by substituting scrubber liquor for process acid.
A spokesman for Horsell said that process audits and weekly monitoring of effluent and water consumption had been in place for some time. But the Aire and Calder Project has acted as a catalyst, with section leaders and managers forming a waste minimisation committee and the ownership of the initiative being spread to the entire workforce. A major water user in West Yorkshire, the firm has now set itself a target of cutting its consumption by half by 1995, and is moving on to review its chemical usage, effluent management and packaging.
Twelve months later, some 250 waste minimisation opportunities have been identified at the plant. Most of these are small, but together they would cut no less than £2 million off the plant's annual operating budget. A notable feature of the companies' programme, said Dr Fletcher, was the degree of workforce involvement, with brainstorming sessions and publicity for the initiative via newsletters and posters.
More than 50 waste minimisation opportunities have been identified at the depot. A modification of diesel fuelling arrangements could save an estimated £50,000 per year, and reduce liabilities arising from ground contamination. Recycling of water containing powerful detergents which are used in bodywork cleaning could save a further £60,000. British Rail is also considering the installation of a reed bed system to treat all the site's effluent streams, with a potential annual saving in excess of £100,000.
The improvements were achieved without capital investment and with no increase in releases to other environmental media. Savings over the 12 months amounted to £83,000, comfortably in excess of £1,000 for each of the site's employees.
Not all of the improvements can be attributed to the Aire and Calder Project, points out Safety Manager Paul Dolan. Some resulted from the transfer of an agrochemical operation to another site. And others were in the pipeline due to Rhone-Poulenc's corporate environmental improvement programme, under which each site is required to achieve a 10% annual reduction in its releases as measured by an environmental index, or were triggered by the need to obtain authorisations under integrated pollution control (IPC).
In preparing for IPC, for example, Rhone-Poulenc found that its product sampling arrangements resulted in major losses of both product and COD to effluent. The company tackled this by increasing the length of its product runs - which addressed another source of COD and effluent by reducing the need for washing out vessels - and by altering its sampling procedures.
Although the benefits of participating in the Aire and Calder Project may therefore have been less clear-cut to Rhone-Poulenc than to most of the other ten firms, the company had good reasons for participating, says Paul Dolan. The involvement of March Consulting provided an extra source of technical advice. The consultancy's Montage software is to be applied to the environmental, energy consumption and other auditable performance parameters on the site. And the training provided by March has also proved valuable in raising environmental awareness among site personnel.
The full extent of the waste minimisation opportunities among the 11 companies is to be totted up by March and reported to the sponsoring bodies this summer. But it is already clear that they will run into several million pounds per annum, and that realising most of this potential will require little investment.
The Yorkshire scheme's success was undoubtedly helpful in getting Project Catalyst off the ground. In this case the cost is £1 million, the main sponsors are the DTI and the BOC Foundation, each chipping in £250,000, and a diverse group of 15 firms are participating (see table ). The consultancies involved are WS Atkins, March Consulting and Aspects International.
An important difference between the Yorkshire and Mersey initiatives is that the latter will focus on releases to all media. The DTI's publicity for the scheme contains ambitious targets. Reductions of 50-80% in effluent charges, 20-50% in water consumption, 10-30% in energy consumption, and 10-30% in solid waste disposal are all achievable, it believes, on pay-backs of less than three years.
Cleaner battery production
Some of the 15 firms have already identified some handsome cost savings. At CMP's battery factory in Manchester, 11 process streams have been found to discharge 250,000m3 of water and 80 tonnes of lead per annum to treatment. CMP has devised a 15-month programme consisting of five recycling and waste prevention schemes and a number of projects to reuse water. The target savings are 177,000m3 of water and 60 tonnes of lead, cutting its annual costs by £150,000 for investments with a one-year pay-back. Next in the company's sights are electricity, gas and packaging.
According to a spokesman for CMP, participation in Project Catalyst "has given us an impetus and provided us with expertise, where in recessionary times our programme could otherwise have wavered and, indeed, been curtailed."
That comment touches on two important points about both schemes. First, the Aire and Calder Project has provided several answers to the question: why do companies not engage in waste minimisation of their own volition?
At one level, the answer is plainly that they do not do enough monitoring, and enough accurate monitoring, to quantify the sources of their overheads. In some cases, the waste minimisation opportunities identified by March had been drawn to management's attention by environmental and other personnel, but, in Dr Fletcher's words, had been "subordinated to the Great God, Production." And there is still a common tendency for firms to begin their process design downstream of the water intake and upstream of the effluent outfall, without considering the financial and environmental penalties this will entail.
Overarching these shortcomings is the failure of management to recognise that efficiency penalties and potential environmental liabilities are being incurred by needless waste. "Production is the main imperative, and even in the depths of recession there still isn't a questioning of why companies do things a particular way," says Dr Fletcher. The success of the Yorkshire and Mersey schemes has come from obtaining the commitment of top management - helped by the carrot of relatively cheap consultancy advice which can be made available under a collaborative programme.
Doubts over DEMOS
Secondly, the involvement of an independent party - notably the DTI and the BOC Foundation - has been crucial in adding to the credibility of the two schemes. Companies are generally sceptical of approaches from consultancies, as March has found in attempting to set up similar initiatives elsewhere.
The ball is now in the DTI's court. There is clear scope for replicating the two schemes, not only with further projects in which firms from a locality collaborate, but also on an industry sector or supply chain basis. And there is also a clear opportunity to strike a new balance between regulation and voluntary environmental programmes lubricated by information, a little cash and moral support from officialdom.
However, funds from the DTI's DEMOS scheme, which paid for Project Catalyst, are now exhausted, and the scheme's initial three-year run ends in September. Earlier confidence that it would be renewed has now been eroded by the general pressure on public expenditure.
While the DTI ponders that problem, several questions remain to be answered. How many of the waste reduction opportunities spotted by the Yorkshire and Mersey projects will actually be implemented? What will be the environmental benefits? And what measures, if any, beyond those regarded as cost-effective will be needed to meet demands from the regulatory authorities? The answers should begin to emerge in 1994.