Quality Protocol: does it hit the right spot?

The Quality Protocol for Compost aims to bring standardisation to an industry
experiencing rapid growth. Harry Waters weighs up the new approach

The past few years have seen a step change in the composting industry on a number of fronts. As the pressure to recycle more, and avoid the looming penalties under LATS, becomes a reality, local authorities across the country have been looking to find composting partners to treat both green and kitchen waste.

The rapid expansion in the industry has led to a need for standardisation. The Composting Association has provided a valuable service setting benchmarks for the industry and defining best practice with standards such PAS 100. Despite this, there is still a wide disparity in the way producers both operate and are regulated. This creates an uneven playing field and uncertainty within the industry, which restricts investment.

The introduction of the Quality Protocol for Compost brings standardisation to the industry at the same time as recognising compost as a product rather than a waste. There is plenty of evidence that the market is interested in the protocol and the quality assurance that it offers. With the industry needing to compost more complicated materials, such as kitchen and catering waste, standards are required to boost market confidence.

Growth on the horizon
If predictions are correct, the next few years will see continued rapid growth in the composting industry, particularly in the in-vessel composting sector. Composting is being propelled from a cottage industry run by enthusiasts to one of the major component of the UK's multi-million pound waste solution. But the waste industry works on the fringe of public acceptability.

The public now accepts that recycling needs to take place but few would welcome any recycling activity in their own back yards. If composting is to remain the favoured child of the waste sector, each and every producer needs to work hard to ensure that operations are conducted with professionalism, care and consideration to the environment - something that the protocol will drive into the industry.

Although the protocol represents a significant step forward for composting, many in the industry have already commented that the benefits do not outweigh the cost and administration of implementation, especially for smaller producers.

On top of the comprehensive record keeping and fees that accompany PAS 100 accreditation - a necessity for entry into the protocol - expensive soil sampling for potentially toxic elements (PTE) is also required prior to application on agricultural land.

Cost implications
This route is and will continue to be the main recipient for compost as the market grows to meet production levels. But, if the compost is PAS 100 compliant, it has to have restricted levels of PTEs as part of the analysis.

With this safeguard in place, it is ultra precautionary to then require soils to be tested for background PTE levels. The cost of doing so, coupled with the PAS 100 fees for registration and analysis, will often make it cheaper to remain under the Paragraph 7 exemption of the Waste Management Licensing Regulations.

It would seem to the pragmatists that expensive soil sampling is unnecessary when the product is defined and most farmers already have a detailed understanding of their soils. Indeed, much could be learnt from the sewage sludge industry where a seemingly less regulated product is applied with a less stringent soil-sampling regime.

The Quality Protocol for Compost is due to be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. The challenge for the industry must be to refine the protocol by maintaining the balanced controls, but reducing the cost and administration to ensure buy-in from the industry.

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