Landfill shake-up offers scope for 'step change'

The way we use landfill is about to go through a series of changes that together add up to something close to a revolution. The shake-up may be uncomfortable, says the Environment Agency's David Bliss, but the opportunity for "step change" is too good to miss. A special correspondent reports.

Things look like getting hot for the waste industry this summer. July will see the beginning of the implementation of a flurry of directives from Europe that will force the waste industry to go through almost revolutionary change.

Or perhaps that should be evolution, a sort of Darwinian survival of the fittest but experienced at high speed. It is going to be a bumpy ride, says David Bliss, who is Policy Manager for the Environment Agency overseeing Pollution Prevention and Control (PPC) for waste.

There will be casualties, he says, but in the longer-term the shake-up should put the way we deal with waste on to a much more sustainable footing.

"When we started looking at the implementation of the Landfill Directive we had about 2,500 waste management licences that covered landfill sites in England and Wales," he says. "Those 2,500 licences covered about 1,500 sites, because some sites had more than one licence. Now we are expecting to get applications for Pollution Prevention and Control (PPC) permits for about 950 sites."

The missing 550 sites are the first casualties of evolution in action. They are sites that have come to the end of their natural life or where operators have decided it is not worth trying to meet the standards of the Directive. However, the sharp reduction in the number of licensed sites should not present too much of a problem as it is mostly small, local sites that have been lost. Mr Bliss says: "Locally there might be difficulty, but when you look at the regional picture there isn't such a problem."

Hazardous waste poser

More pressing, he accepts, is the July shake-up of how hazardous waste is dealt with. With co-disposal ended, very few sites will be left to deal with hazardous waste. Where England and Wales had around 240 commercial landfill sites that could accept hazardous waste, after July it looks as though there will be just a dozen, all in England.

It is a situation that Mr Bliss says may result in some "potentially undesirable consequences", such as waste having to be stored or even fly-tipped. While the Environment Agency and Defra's Hazardous Waste Forum try to manage the immediate headaches, David Bliss looks to the longer-term benefits that the July crunch might deliver.

He says: "Overall, we want to put over the message that really it is time that the producers of hazardous waste look at why they are producing it and if there is an alternative to landfill for disposal. We are keen to move the emphasis away from landfill and back up the chain to the producer; to say 'there's a squeeze on capacity, so you're going to have to think very hard about how you deal with your waste in future'."

The job of implementation is a major one for the Environment Agency. There are hundreds of PPC applications to work through and the process effectively implements four Directives with each permit decision, the Waste Framework Directive, IPPC, the Groundwater Directive and the Landfill Directive.

Of 950 expected applications, more than 160 have arrived and the Environment Agency has chosen to make those covering hazardous waste sites the priority. Some sites are still going to fall below standard. The regulations say that these failures should be closed "as soon as possible".

Hard decisions

For local authority waste managers that could make for some unpleasant surprises. David Bliss says: "We don't appear to have a lot of discretion. The Environment Agency is only really allowed to look at issues that are to do with the environment in reaching a decision. If we come to the conclusion that a site is having too big an impact on the environment, and that those effects can't be dealt with through improvement conditions on the permit, then we have to decide what 'ASAP' means for closure."

There will be hard and uncomfortable decisions to be made. "We are going to have a slightly wider view of what is possible and what is an appropriate timescale, so that we don't end up having a detrimental effect on some other aspect of the environment," he says. "But the Directive does say 'as soon as possible', not as soon as is convenient. It might be inconvenient and expensive for local authorities for sites to close earlier than expected, but we cannot guarantee that sites are going to be allowed to continue until the end of their natural life."

Landfill's brave new world is going to pile the pressure on local authorities. As well as limiting landfill capacity, the shake-up also demands that far more of our waste is treated before disposal. That will create a huge demand for all sorts of waste facilities; as well as new landfills, Britain will need many more transfer and treatment sites.

David Bliss accepts that any facility that is connected with waste disposal is a headache for those who have to see it through the planning process in the face of inevitable local opposition. In the case of new landfill he would like to see the Environment Agency involved at an earlier stage so that sites that are never going to be acceptable can be ruled out as soon as possible. "There is frankly no point in people backing losers," he says. "It is a waste of everybody's time and effort." The Welsh Assembly recently said that 1,000 treatment facilities are needed in Wales alone. Mr Bliss thinks that may be an over-estimate, but says that both England and Wales desperately need more capacity for treatment. "It all adds to an overall requirement for appropriate types of treatment that will be a significant challenge to provide. Planning authorities and the Government are going to have to grasp the nettle."

Despite the problems though, he believes the changes being forced upon the way we deal with waste are an open door to genuine advances. David Bliss says: "There's a risk that unless we all decide to take this seriously we have blown the opportunity of using it as a chance to make a step change in dealing with waste. We have to make people more aware of the issue, making everybody realise that they are partially responsible for the scale of the problem, otherwise we run the risk of missing a golden opportunity."



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