EA ‘concerned’ producers of biowaste used in food production are ‘unaware’ of rules

The Environment Agency (EA) has said it is concerned that biowaste operators, many of whom produce sewage sludge that is spread on farm land for food production, “lack awareness of existing legal obligations”.

The EA ran a consultation on appropriate measures for the sector last summer, based on proposed guidance it released at the time.

In its response document published this week, the EA said that some respondents “appeared unclear about waste characterisation and duty of care requirements”. 

The regulator said it had received comments expressing concern at the rigour of assessment for bespoke and novel wastes.

However, the EA said these assessments had been incorporated into the guidance, which represented “a continuation of current practice and not a tightening of requirements”. 

“We are concerned at the lack of awareness of existing legal obligations. All wastes accepted must be suitable for biological treatment and not simply to blend and dilute in another bulk material. The majority of output from the biowaste sector is used on agricultural land used for food production so this is a critical consideration,” the EA said.

The comments come after a Greenpeace investigation last year found that the EA had been aware of pollution and health risks from the landspreading of sewage sludge for more than two years but has taken no action to tighten regulation.

It found that sludge was contaminated with persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at “levels that may present a risk to human health”. 

The latest EA guidance is an attempt to simplify the rules around biowaste. Currently the measures and standards for permitted facilities taking biological waste are set out in four separate documents.

The guidance also incorporates the relevant requirements of the best available techniques (BAT) conclusions document, made under the EU Industrial Emissions Directive.

The EA is already reviewing the permits of operators to ensure they are complying with BAT. The sector has until August 2022 to comply with the requirements which include new emission limits.

The regulator said the new guidance provides clarification about how it expects operators to achieve compliance with the BAT conclusions.

Some respondents to the draft guidance felt it adopted ‘a one size fits all’ approach, with the majority pointing out that there are differing levels of risk within the sector and a risk-based approach should be used in applying appropriate measures.

Elsewhere in the response document, respondents argued that measures to control ammonia emissions were already covered by DEFRA’s Clean Air Strategy.

The EA said it was working closely with DEFRA and BEIS on the need to reduce emissions and “balancing this with the need to divert biodegradable waste to recovery”. 

Another source of contention was a requirement in the guidance for operators to be able to stop or reduce the acceptance of feedstock. Some respondents felt this was either excessive or not practicable. 

The EA said it accepted that some processes such as sewage sludge digesters cannot easily be turned off although sludge can be diverted elsewhere. 

However, it said it would retain this requirement because a facility “should not accept waste it does not have the capacity to legally treat then store or export”. 

The EA added: “In recent years wet and extreme weather has severely impacted the sector’s ability to manage materials and being climate change ready is becoming increasingly critical to business continuity. Contingency planning is a must do.”