Composters and those involved in the wider management of organic waste gathered at the Chesford Grange hotel in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, to celebrate the milestone and discuss the opportunities for the sector and challenges ahead.
Particular focus was given to tackling plastics contamination in compost (see letsrecycle.com story), while the event also paid homage to Jeremy Jacobs, who has steered the association for many years and is due to stand down in the coming months.
REA Organics chair Charlie Trousdell welcomed delegates to “what might be the last conference in the UK” adding: “We have come a long way in the last 25 years and its a fantastic industry. We have a lot of challenges – probably even more this year.”
To kick the conference off, an overview of the the growth of the organics recycling industry and its trade association was presented by consultant Dr Jane Gilbert, who headed up the association in its early years.
Delivering a “potted history” about the association, she explained that it started life when the Composting Association was formed in 1995.
At the time, there were just 32 composting sites in the UK, composting just 140,000 tonnes of waste per year, she explained. Gate fees were typically £10/15 a tonne which Dr Gilbert noted “haven’t changed much today.”
In 2008 the Association went on to become the Association for Organics Recycling (AfOR) and in 2013 merged with the REA to become the Organics Recycling Group, later rebranded as REA Organics.
“The UK organics recycling sector has grown from humble beginnings in the early 1990s to one that now processes over eight million tonnes of material a year”, Dr Gilbert said.
Some of the key drivers for this growth included legislation such the Landfill Directive, according to Dr Gilbert, which she said was “the main driver over the last 20 years for the development of the composting industry”. She also credited “science-based action” for helping the sector to develop.
However, just as the industry was taking off, Dr Gilbert said that it was hit by the impact of the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in the UK in 2001, noting that ‘the vets wanted everything incinerated and that was a real possibility at the time.”
And, she warned that infectious diseases would always pose a risk to industry, commenting: “Infectious diseases are not going away. Coronavirus is not likely to affect our sector but something else will come up”.
Dr Gilbert also highlighted risk aversion as one of the barriers to growth as well as subsidies for anaerobic digestion.
She said: “We also started to see AD subsidies which in my view have skewed the market and meant we don’t have a coherent organic waste strategy.”
In the last 25 years, Dr Gilbert said that a total of 93 million tonnes of organic waste had been recycled by the industry, which she calculated was equivalent to £159 million based on today’s carbon price.
She commented: “That is a huge amount of carbon you guys have locked up in the soil and you should be proud of that.” She also said the nutrient value of this was “equivalent to what agriculture uses in a year.”
Looking ahead, Dr Gilbert championed carbon sequestration and a focus on soil quality.
“I am confident that our inner resilience, experience and adaptability that has been borne out over the last 25 years will continue to grow”
“Lets get the organic matter back and hopefully that will be the future of our sector going forward together”, she said.
Following Dr Gilbert’s summary, presentations were then delivered in the morning session by speakers including Dr Jonathan Scurlock from the National Farmers’ Union, Dean Bates from JCB, Howard Leberman from the Environment Agency, Francine Powner from composting company J&A Powner, Jenny Grant from the REA and Paul Thompson from the REA’s certification body, Renewable Energy Assurance Ltd (REAL).
Mr Thompson updated delegates on the launch of the Compostable Materials Certification Scheme, which is due to open to participants at the end of April.
“There is a lot of consumer driver interest in plastic alternatives”, Mr Thompson explained, adding that up until now it had not been easy to “check information” about claims of compostability.
The new scheme has accompanying symbols to represent whether material is ‘home compostable’ or ‘industrially compostable.’
Meanwhile Mr Bates, who is national sales manager for JCB, talked about emissions reduction, efficiency and safety in mobile plant. He showcased JCB’s Proximity Braking System (PBS), which uses special antennae fitted onto JCB machines to detect when workers come close to the machine and instantly applies the brakes.
“This is an intelligent monitoring system that can help to prevent accidents”, he explained. ‘It removes the thinking /reaction time involved before applying the brakes.”
The conference was followed by a black tie gala dinner and drinks reception.
Commenting on the 25 year milestone, Jeremy Jacobs said: “I am confident that our inner resilience, experience and adaptability that has been borne out over the last 25 years will continue to grow and aid future investment in our wonderful industry for the next 25 years and beyond, helping to shape the circular economy within our sphere of influence.”