Organics recycling expert Charlie Trousdell of Charlie T Associates reflects on the issue of plastics contamination impacting on the organics sector.
Plastic pollution risks ‘near permanent contamination of the natural environment’ warned a new global study by US academics this month. Researchers say a massive 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced to date – the vast majority (79%) ending up in our environment.
But despite local authorities (LAs) responsibility as custodians of the waste sector, some have shown a shameful indifference to plastic contamination. This issue is a growing threat to quality within the industry.
Some LAs expect composters to accept tenders that stipulate the composter must accept 5 or even 10% by weight of contamination.
To put this in context, a 30,000 tonnes per annum (TPA) site may be forced to accept 150 TPA of plastic at a 5% level. Clearly this is unacceptable, a more realistic figure is no more than 10 small plastic bags per 25 tonne load.
We desperately need a renewed effort by LAs to follow their duty of care in this matter to ensure they only deliver clean green waste to composters and for composters to reject poor quality loads without penalty. Failure to tackle the growing problem of plastic contamination in organic waste inputs will lead to the death of the composting industry and the loss of a valuable recycling route.
On one level, ‘policing’ plastic should be easy enough to monitor at household waste recycling centres (HCRWs) and not too difficult for kerbside collected waste, but it does require effort and commitment. LAs must ensure their HWRCs are managed to have as close to ‘zero plastic’ and other contaminants, as possible.
We also need to send clear messages to residents about not contaminating their green waste or food bins. Social media makes this task much easier than it was 10 years ago. I believe most people want to know what to do properly and will, if asked in the right way, cooperate. In terms of communication it probably needs the under 16s who are completely digitally connected to get an effective message across!
Now that our industry produces so many diverse products for different markets, managing our inputs is critical. In the early days of composting, green waste often meant ‘anything green’ to people, so encountering plastic chairs or lawn mowers in a load was a common hazard for an unsuspecting waste collector.
Thankfully much work went on to educate people about what was compostable and input and output quality thus improved dramatically. Furthermore, the development of the PAS100QP standard helped ensure the production of consistently good-quality compost.
Currently PAS is under review. This is partly driven by concerns that quality standards are slipping – with particular regard to plastic contamination in organic waste feedstock. It is inevitable that the reviewed standard will require a reduction of plastic in the end product hence the importance of ensuring it is not in the input stream.
While composters mainly do an amazing job of removing other people’s rubbish, it’s a costly process and difficult to get all the plastic out. This leads to very contaminated oversize which is difficult to clean up so ends up in landfill or energy recovery. Fundamentally we all need to get better at ensuring plastic doesn’t go into green waste bins. Genuine certified compostable bags are acceptable and are often used for combined food and green waste collections, however, again the public are confused by what is a genuine compostable bag or don’t want to spend the money on a genuine bag.
To ensure we continue to have a successful composting industry, providing quality organic material to agriculture and horticultural markets, we need to improve input quality across the sector. This means LAs improving how they operate, along with composters rejecting those waste loads that do not meet the correct standard.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency understand that green waste means green organic garden waste, not loads of plastic. These organisations should take enforcement action against the local authorities and composters not adhering to these standards.
There are some LAs doing a fantastic job, but sadly this is not replicated across the country.