This is a crucial time for the UK’s composting industry, a period of unprecedented growth and change that presents both opportunities and challenges in abundance.

At this turning point, the composting industry needs to take a long, hard look at how it should meet the country’s biodegradable municipal waste challenges in ways that are practical, sustainable and economic.

Drivers for change

Recent regulatory changes affecting the composting market have raised the bar considerably.

Chief among the instruments introduced by central government are the Landfill Directive and the regulatory tool it spawned, the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (LATS).

At the heart of both is the need to set demanding targets for the diversion of biodegradable municipal waste away from landfill and into composting.

Combined with the Animal By-products Regulations (ABPR) which require higher levels of process control and treatment for waste other than source-separated organic waste, these legislative measures are proving to be powerful drivers for change.

Their collective force is moving waste management away from landfill-dominated processes towards more integrated, hi-tech schemes.

State of the market

All these changes are taking place in the context of a composting market that is relatively immature and inexperienced, with few long-established operators and rapidly emerging technologies, some of which have still to prove themselves.

Though a revolution in the UK composting industry is undeniably underway, it is still in its early stages. We have a long way to go.

The Compost Association estimates that we need approximately 600 facilities in the UK in order to meet targets set by the government. To date, less than a tenth of these have been built.

At the moment, we process 1.4 million tonnes of compost per year. Over the next ten years, that target will gradually increase to some 10 million tonnes, as, year by year, LATS targets increase.

The performance of local authorities is measured according to Best Value Performance Indicators (BVPIs). These measures set national quality standards and local authorities must achieve BVPI targets set for the percentage of total tonnage of household waste arisings that are sent for composting in order to achieve LATS compliance.

The growth of the UK composting industry is largely being fuelled by demand from local authorities who, obliged to meet these ever tighter LATS targets, need to invest increasing funds in biodegradable waste treatment plants.

New technology is, to a certain extent, another driver to growth. While there is no doubt that the pressure to achieve compliance and hit constantly increasing targets is stimulating composting companies to develop and adopt new technologies, not all these innovations are likely to prove equally successful.

The range of composting technology available is wide, some based on established processes and some introducing new concepts.

Though many of these new technologies have proved to be effective, others are still untested in the long term and may ultimately fail to deliver.

Looking to the future

This is an exciting market with the potential for very significant growth and development. I believe there are several elements that will determine whether or not the composting industry fulfils its great potential.

Local authorities are embracing composting with a vengeance but the questions we in the composting industry have to ask ourselves are: do we have the capacity to supply an increasing market, and do we have the flexibility to continue to provide reliable systems that deliver what is needed?

Planning is another big issue. To keep ‘waste miles’ to a minimum, composting plants need to be constructed close to the communities they serve.

Obtaining planning permission for the construction of the quantity of facilities we need in the locations where they are required is likely to prove a major headache.

Here again, the effectiveness of highly engineered, computer-controlled plants have a key part to play in managing odour emissions and other nuisances.

Composting plants need to be clustered in geographical areas to achieve critical mass and become economic.

One plant operated by one isolated local authority is probably not a commercially viable prospect; ten plants operating in the same local area could well be.

To achieve this kind of integration would mean higher levels of co-operation between local authorities than we see today. For this to occur, the boundaries need to come down.

There are signs that the 430 or so local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland are beginning to see the sense in working with each other on waste management issues but this trend has a long way to go before we can look forward to a truly integrated network of composting centres around the country.

Last but not least, the industry needs to focus on the end product. We must ensure that we produce high quality, commercial products that are relevant to the markets they are recycled into. There is no point in producing rubbish from rubbish.

Agrivert Ltd

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