The Environment Agency - England and Wales

Biowaste challenges and opportunities in the coming decade

Facing up to the challenges of dealing with biowastes over the next decade will need the right balance of controls and incentives to encourage the reuse of waste while protecting the environment and human health, according to the UK Environment Agency. The United Kingdom produces over 100 million tonnes of biodegradable waste every year, enough to fill approximately 25 Wembley stadiums, and most of this still ends up in landfills. The government, local authorities and industry need to focus on finding alternatives, and exploring opportunities to produce quality materials from biowaste.

Biowastes include livestock manures, the biodegradable part of municipal wastes including food and garden waste, treated sewage sludge, organic industrial waste such as paper and textiles, and compost. They are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution of watercourses if not managed properly.

Tricia Henton, Environment Agency’s Director of Environment Protection, said: “The way in which biowastes are managed and disposed of by industry and local government is changing rapidly – so research and policy frameworks need to react in accordance with this. Local government, central government and the waste industry need a more coherent and integrated approach to managing and disposing of biowastes taking into account local and national government waste strategies and land use.

“We are now at a point whereby we can produce quality biowaste outputs that can be harnessed for green energy and organic fertiliser, or if mismanaged will lead to land and water contamination, odorous emissions and unabated release of greenhouse gases. Segregating the sources of biowaste prior to treatment will ensure quality inputs to a well managed treatment process, which will in turn result in quality outputs.”

Key drivers for the sustainable management of biowastes in the coming decade, include:

The EU Landfill Directive binding the United Kingdom to a reduction of biodegradable waste sent to landfill to 35% of 1995 levels by 2020,

Potential changes to the Nitrates Action Plans under the EU Nitrates Directive, which will require tighter controls on the amount of high nitrogen biowastes spread to land from spring 2008,

A review by Autumn 2009 of the exemptions from permitting, under which we currently regulate waste landspreading activities,

The increasing focus on recovering energy from biowastes as a way of reducing greenhouse gases and producing green energy.

The Environment Agency has taken into account a swathe of methods, standards and legislation, to develop position statements on:

(1) Sustainable management of biowastes (selected points):

The Environment Agency adopts risk-based regulation of biowaste treatments using a range of measures, from bespoke permits through to deregulating low risk activities using BREW Quality Protocols to encourage recovery and reuse of the waste.

Waste planners and developers delivering waste management infrastructure should find the best treatment for their individual situation. The Environment Agency wants to see high quality materials derived from source segregated biowastes finding markets as a resource, rather than low quality materials that need disposal with tight and restrictive regulation.

We believe a precautionary approach may be necessary to regulate new biowastes where there is uncertainty about the benefits/risks of spreading onto land as a soil conditioner.

Regulations to protect the environment from over-application such as the proposed Nitrates Action Programme and the Water Framework Directive, which may limit the amount of soil conditioner that can be used, will undoubtedly increase the demand for suitable land.

(2) Sewage sludge and septic tank sludge

The Environment Agency regulates certain sewage and sludge treatment centres, landfills and incinerators through the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2007; and the application of sewage sludge to agricultural land through the Sludge (Use in Agriculture) Regulations 1989.

Treatment of sewage sludge and septic tank sludge followed by use as a soil conditioner can be beneficial in capturing methane to produce energy, stabilise soil and reduce chemical fertilisers. But sludge can contain chemical contaminants and pathogens which have the potential to damage soil and must be controlled.

Some septic tank sludge is still spread untreated to land. We call for a ban on the spreading of all septic tank sludge.
Alternative technologies, for example incineration with energy recovery, have improved markedly over the last 10 years and in some circumstances offer advantages over land spreading such as better control of contaminants and reduced transport.

We believe that compliance with voluntary measures that the water industry has set up play an important role in the control of pathogens when this material is used as a soil conditioner. 

(3) Composting – maximising the benefits and minimising the environmental impacts

The Environment Agency regulates larger scale/industrial composting facilities under Environmental Permitting Regulations 2007, while the medium and smaller scale sites must register but are exempt from the need for a licence or permit.

We want licence/permit applicants and those wishing to register licence exemptions to produce site specific bioaerosol risk assessments that are fit for purpose – we will be rigorous in rejecting them if they are not.  We are improving and streamlining the way we deal with bioaerosol risk assessments and are producing guidance on them for applicants.
We want to encourage industry to adopt the recently established Compost Quality Protocol to lessen regulatory burden.

Due to some poorly managed and operated sites we want the scope of the new composting exemption to be reduced considerably and would like to see many of the existing exempt facilities subject to standard permits in the future. 

(4) Compost-like outputs from Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) of mixed municipal waste

Mechanical separation and biological treatment technologies (MBT) are increasingly being used to treat mixed municipal waste with the biological fraction of the outputs known as ‘Compost-like Outputs’ (CLO). As the source of the waste is mixed, varied and contaminated, CLO may pose a risk to the environment if spread on land.

The Environment Agency regulates MBT plants under the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2007. We regulate the treated outputs (including CLO) from these plants as controlled wastes.

We do not believe that CLO should be applied, under an Environmental Permit, to agricultural land used for growing food or fodder crops. There may be beneficial uses for CLO on remediation or restoration sites as a medium risk activity now or in the future. We believe industry should take the lead in developing research into CLO and risks associated with its uses.        

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