BioCycle Magazine

Composting infrastructure trends in the UK

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The European Union's Landfill Directive, which restricts landfilling of biodegradable waste, has made it necessary to develop alternative infrastructures to manage the organic fraction of the solid waste stream. In the United Kingdom, the Landfill Directive has created demand for composting facilities that take source separated organics (SSO), and for anaerobic digestion. Infrastructure also is being built - in the form of Mechanical/Biological Treatment plants - as a means to process mixed solid waste.

“At the moment, we're seeing a complementary infrastructure development of composting and anaerobic digestion (AD), as well as Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT),” says Jane Gilbert, Chief Executive of The Composting Association (TCA), in the United Kingdom. Local authorities have targets to meet for composting and diversion, and are in the process of increasing compost production from SSO collection. The government also is pushing hard for AD as a means of diversification, and to handle the food waste fraction of the waste stream (approximately 6.7 million metric tons per year from municipal sources alone).

Local authorities are looking at management options for the residual waste from MBT plants - referred to as “compost-like outputs” or CLO. The government has not specified where CLO that is produced by the MBT processes will be used. TCA is recommending the development of quality criteria to determine whether land spreading of high quality CLO is reasonable. Decisions made regarding CLO also would apply to the residuals stream from SSO composting operations. “Even with SSO, there is a need to manage the residual waste element, to handle any biodegradable material left behind,” continues Gilbert.

According to Gilbert, the tandem development of MBT and composting infrastructure is not competitive at this point in time. Private industry, such as waste management companies, is not currently pushing for MBT (or any other method for that matter), as the landfill directives are not pressuring them yet. Rather, pressure is on the local authorities to comply with the landfill diversion targets, and thereby to invest in and procure infrastructure-building technologies. These local authorities hire private contractors, who then work with technology and service providers.

TCA's mission is to promote the sustainable management of biodegradable resources. With approximately 500 members, it is made up of compost producers, local authorities and trade suppliers. At its annual conference in December, TCA launched “A Manifesto for Achieving Sustainable Biodegradable Waste Management,” outlining key challenges facing the composting industry and offering recommendations for governmental support. The three areas identified are: Supporting the development of new infrastructure; Managing residual waste (CLO); and Supporting sustainable agriculture (the sector's role as carbon managers).

All three challenges discussed in the Manifesto are long-term initiatives, to be addressed over the next decade, as opposed to quick fixes. The first area, supporting development of new infrastructure, involves developing more flexible community land use planning procedures and approvals, which means changing government regulation, a lengthy process. The second, managing CLO, won't happen overnight either, as there is a significant amount of background work to be done. The third, supporting sustainable agriculture, is really the key initiative, notes Gilbert, as there are already cross-compliance obligations that farmers are required to meet. “In England, farmers must reach these obligations, but there is currently no direct reference to compost,” says Gilbert, something the Association wishes to change.

Some of the primary obstacles Gilbert sees to the growth of composting in England revolve around the circumstances of living on a small island. “Land is a premium, and therefore quite expensive,” she says. “Land use pressure is huge, with increases in population and the need for more housing.” Current proposed changes to regulations do not affect new composting facilities, and instead favor large infrastructure projects such as incinerators. “Even MBT plants are difficult under the inherently inflexible plan-led system,” explains Gilbert. And, as an island, no matter where an MBT or composting facility is located, it will be close to residences, which further complicates infrastructure development.

Part of TCA's push for more flexible regulations revolves around the debate of centralized and decentralized composting facilities. Decentralized composting facilities, such as on farms, are important for rural areas of England. However, centralized sites are needed with an economy of scale in more populated areas. “We are looking at a way to have a system in place for small, medium and large composting sites, depending on criteria such as feedstocks and location (rural versus urban),” she says.

A flexible policy would allow for proportional regulation, encouraging a range of operational sizes. As it stands now, there is a big jump from small facilities, which only need to register their activities, and larger ones that require full permitting, complying with stringent environmental regulations. “Changes are afoot,” says Gilbert. “Government has been working on an Environmental Permitting Program, which would involve incremental steps, rather than a jump.” She notes that this should come into play this year, and constitutes a significant change for the composting industry.

TCA is also working with the Environment Agency and WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) on a compost certification scheme, to establish criteria for compost that isn't subject to regulation. In order to meet the Biodiversity Directive, a set of obligations for all constituent nations of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales), TCA works with WRAP to promote sustainable alternatives to peat in horticulture. For instance, incorporating green waste, rather than peat, is a method of reducing degradation of peat bogs (and thereby supports biodiversity). And, TCA works with biodegradable plastics, serving as the UK certifying institution of European Bioplastics (via DIN-Certco in Germany). European Bioplastics functions much like the Biodegradable Products Institute in the United States - they do not promote the packaging, but help assure that products are biodegradable.


THE European Union Landfill Directive has encouraged Scotland to divert biodegradable waste through a combination of types of facilities, says Jenny Grant of The Composting Association: Scotland. “To date, the main infrastructure in Scotland had been open-air windrow composting, with a few in-vessel plants (required to comply with the Animal By-Products Regulation) and only a couple of Mechanical Biological Treatment/anaerobic digestion (AD) plants,” she says. “Currently AD seems to be more on the agenda, since it encompasses the capture of methane for renewable energy. Anaerobic digestion facilities are well-suited to complement existing composting facilities.”

Although the Directive has targeted municipal waste, which affects local authorities, manufacturers are increasingly aware of improving their green credentials. “There has been an expansion with more companies looking at using compostable packaging,” notes Grant. “There is also the Courtauld Commitment to reduce packaging.” The Courtauld Commitment was created by 13 grocery retailers in 2005 to demonstrate their commitment to minimizing waste. It aims at reducing the amount of packaging and food waste thrown away by UK households. This agreement is not obligatory, but rather it relies on firm commitment from the major retailers.

A press release from the Scottish Government at the end of January 2008 outlines a new zero waste initiative, which introduces stricter targets for diversion. Besides goals for increasing recycling and composting, which combined must account for 70 percent of municipal waste management by 2025, it sets parameters for waste-to-energy (WTE) plants. For instance, no more than 25 percent of municipal solid waste may be used for WTE operations by 2025, and large incinerators will be rejected. Instead, smaller, more efficient facilities are encouraged. At this point, WTE plants are viewed as integral to the zero waste plan for diverting MSW from landfills, with a goal set for only 5 percent of MSW going to landfills by 2025. “Waste-to-energy has a role, and it will continue to have a role,” says Grant. “It's not seen as an alternative to composting and recycling, which should be done as much as possible first. The Waste Hierarchy encourages Reduce and then Reuse prior to alternative options. The Government realizes this, and is also aware of public opposition to large incinerators.” Incineration will help some local authorities meet Landfill Directive obligations in the short term, however, restrictions proposed in the new zero waste plan require carbon reduction that could limit their use in the near future. How realistic this is remains to be seen.

As part of the zero waste plan, Scottish Government Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead has promised to make £2.5 million/year available over the next three years, and will set up a Zero Waste Think Tank. This funding is aimed at promoting recycling and improving public awareness.

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