Councils celebrate 'beacon' PFI landmark

Three councils have joined forces to create a waste project that aims to recover value from 53% of municipal waste by 2010. Phil Mellows attended the opening

Next time the cry of "rubbish" echoes from Reading FC's Madejski Stadium ears will be pricking up a few hundred yards away at the Smallmead Waste Management Park. They love their rubbish at Smallmead, a point VIP guests at the official opening last month were left in no doubt as they dived into the picking line and got their hands - or rather their gloves - dirty.

For the councillors of Bracknell Forest, Reading and Wokingham it was a moment for celebration. Ten years on from when the project was conceived they had proved that three local authorities could come together in a scheme to create a waste management operation that has the potential to meet, and exceed, challenging government and EU targets.

Paul Bettison, leader of Bracknell Forest Borough Council and chair of the Local Government Association's environment board, described the project as "a beacon for other councils". He added: "They have plans like this, but ours have come to fruition. This is a landmark. A most memorable of days."

Work properly began in 2006 when the three councils, coming together under the umbrella organisation Re3, chose Waste Recycling Group (WRG) as their private sector partner in a 25-year PFI deal worth £610M. As well as Smallmead, the project includes a second waste management park at Longshot Lane in Bracknell, which officially opened a week later. Total cost of building the two new facilities was £28.4M.

Smoothly does it
Re3 project manager Oliver Burt is almost apologetic about how smoothly things have gone. "PFI schemes are always a big risk for local authorities," he says. "There's always that question hanging over them - is it going to happen? But, and it's boring I know, this has generally gone according to plan and the risk is reducing by the day as the facility gets into its stride.

"The partnership has worked so well because each council shares the same goals. There was such a clear need politics never came into it. And WRG has done what it said it would do. It's been a remarkable experience."

Smallmead park, built on the old council landfill site, holds a household waste recycling centre, a waste transfer station, a MRF, a visitor education centre and offices. The waste transfer station, opened in April 2008, is designed to handle 200,000tpa of trade and kerbside waste from the three boroughs.

Inside the MRF
The MRF is designed to sort and bale up to 75,000tpa of co-mingled dry recyclables, separating them into five streams - aluminium cans, cardboard, paper, plastic bottles and steel cans. The process is automated using air knives, eddy currents magnets and a TiTech PolySort unit for the plastics. Contaminants are then hand-picked. The average recovery rate from waste across the Re3 partnership area in 2008-9 was nearly 40%.

The household waste recycling centre, which also opened last year, is used by up to 6,000 residents a week who drive up a pleasant entrance road into a light and airy roofed area with clearly colour-coded bays and banks for different kinds of waste. In a survey last October, the facility scored an approval rating of 99%, suggesting Re3 has achieved its ambitious goal of making recycling a pleasurable experience. "The public couldn't believe it could be this good," as Cllr Bettison puts it.

According to the PFI contract, the scheme will recover value from 53% of municipal waste by 2010. The recycling rate target for the end of the contract, in 2021, is 50%, recovering value from 74% of waste collected by the three authorities. And Smallmead also has an educational role. More than 2,000 schoolchildren a year are expected to use the visitor centre to learn about reducing waste and recycling - and see for themselves that their efforts really make a difference.

Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist

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