Plastic contamination is the “number one issue” that needs addressing in the review of the Quality Protocols for compost and digestate, according to a senior Environment Agency official.
Howard Leberman, senior advisor for site-based regulation, told the REA Organics conference in Warwickshire on 12 March that plastic contamination needs to be driven down “to a minimum” to raise standards and create market confidence.
Mr Leberman’s comments came as one composter presented a case study of how to successfully work with local authorities to clean up garden waste feedstock, while others raised concerns over the potential cost for operators of removing plastics.
Last year, the Environment Agency announced a review of the 13 Quality Protocols – which Mr Leberman said were to be rebranded as ‘Resource Frameworks’.
These Quality Protocols are important for industry as they set the end of waste criteria which have to be met for material to be treated like virgin and for waste regulation to fall away.
Mr Leberman said the Agency was now “at a cornerstone” of the review process for digestate and compost, after a call for evidence concluded on January 31.
He said: “We did a call for evidence and now we are going to publish our responses”, adding that “when we publish the consultation document we are minded to proceed with a review.”
“We want to drive the contamination of plastics in Quality Protocol compliant output to a minimum”
He explained that a review would only go ahead if industry paid the Agency around £25,000 for its time which he described as a “bargain”.
“We will set up a Technical Advisory Group and involve you guys to discuss and inform our opinion – it’s a collaborative approach, but the decision is ours” he explained. “We think that the review will take up to six months or so – there is everything to play for.”
He added: “What we did learn is that plastics is the number one issue. The number two issue is plastic and the number three issue is plastics. I think we all know – plastic contamination”.
Currently, the Quality Protocols allow for 5% input plastics and 0.12% output of plastics but Mr Leberman said: “We are looking at tightening that up. there has got to be a better quality output.”
He said: “It is all going to be about the plastics – the sampling methodology and the testing methodology… We want to drive the contamination of plastics in Quality Protocol compliant output to a minimum.”
Mr Leberman explained that alongside the review of the Quality Protocols, the standard rules for composting were also being “modernised” (see letsrecycle.com story)
He said that the Agency was proposing on setting a plastic limit in feedstock at 5%, in line with what councils deemed currently achievable, but explained that this would be reduced year-on-year.
The standard rules are a fixed set of rules that operators with standard environmental permits must comply with to continue operating.
‘We are also going to start scrutinising your output”, he said. “By 2025 we want to see plastic output contamination at about 0.1%. That is our working percentage at the moment. We are also going to build in a reporting request where you tell us there is a reduction in your plastic output year-on-year.”
Mr Leberman said: ‘We are either building this into the Quality Protocol or will issue a regulatory position statement saying you don’t meet the Quality Protocol if you don’t meet these plastics limits.”
When asked by REA technical director Jeremy Jacobs whether these measures might place all the cost burden on operators as opposed to councils, he said: “If the burden does fall on the operators it is about investment, it is about gate fees. The good news is that everyone is talking so I am optimistic.”
Mr Leberman cited a case study, also presented at the conference, about how operators could work with local authorities to clean up green waste feedstock.
Francine Powner, from composting company J&F Powner Ltd, said that local authorities need to take more of a proactive approach in reducing green waste contamination at source.
Historically, local authorities have written into their contracts acceptable contamination limits of up to 5% and Ms Powner said that “sadly this was still the case” – putting compost sites inadvertently “at risk” of breaching standard rule permit conditions and Duty of Care.
“Organic sites need to open up a dialogue with local authorities and set a precedent by rejecting contaminated feedstock without risk to contracts”, she said. “Standing as an industry, it is important that we say no.”
Ms Powner said that the Agency was proposing a maximum contamination level of 0.5% but that “we need to be aiming for zero tolerance”.
Working in partnership with a local authority supplier, she explained that progress could be made through training collection crews to lift bin lids for visual checks and reject contaminated loads.
Addressing the audience, she said: “Things won’t change unless we all work together”.