West London’s in-vessel winner

Securing long-term contracts with local authorities has been instrumental in the fast-growing success of West London Composting. Maxine Perella reports

One of the UK’s largest in-vessel composting sites can be found in Harefield, near Uxbridge in West London. Set up in July 2004, the facility boasts a capacity of 50,000 tonnes per annum, producing 30,000 tonnes of end-product, and serves five local authorities – the London Boroughs of Brent, Hillingdon and Harrow, as well as Spelthorne Borough Council and Hertfordshire County Council.

West London Composting (WLC) is the brainchild of managing director Martin Grundon, a former farmer who saw the potential for an in-vessel solution when his farm started composting food and green waste on-site. “My father started farming here in the 1930s, and the pigs and beef cattle we kept were fed on waste food. We always had a skip business, collecting the waste food, and the shift into waste was a gradual diversification – we got a waste transfer license, a waste transfer station, and built up another string to our bow.”

When the farm began to receive a lot of surplus food waste, along with some green waste, Grundon applied for planning permission to set up an open windrow site. Having successfully received this, he was then approached by a consultant to see if he would be interested in developing this further with an in-vessel facility.

“Local authorities were beginning to think about kerbside collection of green waste, and it was getting harder to earn a decent living from farming,” Grundon recalls. “I did some research and went abroad to visit companies in Austria and Germany to see how they carried out their composting – they are 10 years ahead of us [the UK], and I picked up some good ideas which have been incorporated into this operation.”

The facility at WLC was designed with the help of Chris Fields from The Composting Company, who project-managed the development. A particular innovation can be seen at the vehicle reception area, where lorries tip waste into a ramped pit for added health & safety.

Load inspection critical to quality

Grundon points out that this also enables the load to be inspected for contaminants such as glass and clothing, and rejected if necessary. Loads generally comprise either green or mixed kerbside (green, food, paper, cardboard) waste, and rooting out contaminant materials is a vital task.

“We’ve learnt to be quite particular about our compost inspections, as we’ve found items like cylinder heads off engines which can damage our machinery,” says Grundon.

He adds that some LAs need to be educated as to what can be composted, as even items like the wrong type of card can mean the whole load being rejected. When I visited the site, a team of council officials were being shown a contaminated load – educational initiatives like this are something that WLC is keen to promote. “More communication is needed – between local authority officers, drivers, the collection crew, and residents. If we reject a load, it means an extra cost for the council so it’s in everyone’s interest to understand what we can compost, and what we can’t,” Grundon explains.

WLC produces two grades of end-product – a coarse 25mm for use in agriculture and a finer 10mm general compost, suited for use as a soil conditioner or for blending with soils and sands. Grundon’s says the company’s bulk market is agriculture where he reports the 25mm product has had “very good feedback” from farmers.

Farming out market potential

“We are trying to get farmers to take compost as opposed to artificial fertilisers. A lot of them are looking towards compost because it’s so much cheaper – a ton of nitrogen is £180 whereas a ton of compost is £3 to £4, but we are trying to get the price up. Nitrogen can make crops grow very quickly, but compost contains all the nutrients necessary for soil.”

He also reports that LAs are now looking to buy back composted product from the company – primarily the 10mm grade – for use in their parks and grounds. “That’s an exciting development for us, and it makes sense.”

Despite reaching capacity very quickly, Grundon has no immediate plans to expand. Having invested £3 million in the facility, he is keen to grow at a steady pace. “Ultimately we would like to grow in the future, but it’s still a relatively new concept for us. What’s more important to us at the moment is developing markets for compost and adding value to the end-product.”

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