ESA Chairman promotes open debate on Landfill Directive

Mike Averill, Group Chief Executive of Shanks Group plc, and current Chairman of the Environmental Services Association, expresses forthright views on key issues facing the waste management and environmental services industry, from both a company and industry-wide perspective, in an interview with LAWE Editor, Alexander Catto. This article forms part of a special feature within the magazine's extensive preview of the IWM 2000 Conference and Exhibition to be held at Torbay from 13-16 June.

One of the waste management industry’s major concerns is the potential impact of the Landfill Directive. Mike Averill says: “If we are honest nobody has a clue about how we are going to meet it.”

Under his chairmanship, the ESA is organising an open conference to let all legitimate interests have their say on how the UK can respond to the problems we face in meeting the demands set out in the Directive.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher has agreed to address the event, to be held at a London venue in September.

As Shanks’ chief Mr Averill has strong views on the much vaunted role of recycling as an alternative to landfilling waste. He is on the record as stating recently that recycling is not currently economic. Elaborating on that view he says: “It is not economic in this country because the landfill alternative is still too cheap, despite the Landfill Tax.”

He is emphatically against the concept of diverting revenues to subsidise more recycling, pointing out that his own company “has sunk a lot of money into recycling.” The group has a big MRF at Milton Keynes, one at Acton and another in Glasgow. The company has also been undertaking a considerable amount of aggregates recycling in the Midlands.

He says that these operations are not profitable, with the possible exception of the aggregates business, at the moment. “The last thing I want to see,” he says, “is somebody to come in with a big subsidy to compete with operations that are already running.

“The trouble with subsidies is that they will destroy the level playing field and that is quite abhorrent to a private sector company.” He would like to see the macro, rather than the micro, economics changed.

Mike Averill is able to take a European perspective of the waste market, as Chief Executive of a UK based waste management company, which has, to some extent, turned the tide of investment from other parts of Europe into our waste industry, with acquisitions by Shanks in companies in Belgium and the Netherlands. The latest addition is Waste Management Nederland BV.

While he does not believe that the industry is going to be international – in terms of moving waste around – he says, “as we as a nation are sitting here arguing whether or not we should go into the single European currency, we long ago ceded environmental sovereignty with the Maastricht Treaty. This is now the area of Europe, they have primacy and they determine the legislative thrust.”

Countries like the Netherlands are driving the EU agenda, with the EU, in its turn, driving the UK agenda. Mike Averill says: “By having the businesses in the Netherlands, we have a window on the future, of what’s going to happen here.”

Because of the acquisitions in Europe and other activities, he believes that his group has the appropriate recycling technology in-house which is readily exportable to the UK.

Referring specifically to aggregates recycling, which he agrees should be boosted by the recently announced Quarry Tax, he says that in both Belgium and the Netherlands the group has got very sophisticated aggregates recycling facilities.

Incineration & landfill

Discussing the potential for the greater use of waste incinerators, as outlined in the A Way with Waste policy document, Mr Averill says: “I reckon that anybody who examines this market for any length of time would rapidly conclude that this mass burn incineration is more appropiate for areas of high density population, whereas landfill is more appropriate for areas of low density population.”

He sees a case for a system of tradeable permits, which could give a bigger incentive to areas of higher population to build. He does see a fly in the ointment however, with devolution, and he is concerned that, if SEPA in Scotland, for example, tried to meet its obligations independently of the UK, a tradeable permit system could be undermined.

Turning again to Europe, in response to the proposition that a view was emerging that “enough was enough” in relation to environmental legislation, he says that may be true in terms of emissions to air and water, but he considers that in the area of waste management, with the possible exception of incineration, he cannot see any move backwards.

Mike Averill argues that the top line in the industry will not be driven by a huge increase in unit volumes, but by a requirement from society for a more sophisticated approach to managing waste – and that will be expensive!

Shanks was the first company in the UK waste management industry to publish a Corporate Environmental Policy which is regularly reviewed and updated by the internal Corporate Environment Committee.

The group is also scrutinised by an independent Environmental Advisory Board (EAB) which examines the Shanks’ sites, operations, policies and environmental systems.

Advisory board members are seen on an inspection visit. The annual EAB report for 1999 records that the board has visited the group’s CETEM landfill site in Belgium, following Shanks’ acquisition of a group of Belgian management companies in 1998. The visit provided EAB members with the first opportunity to assess the environmental standards of waste management operations, compared with current UK practice.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie