The organics recycling sector has issued responses to the newspaper articles which claimed that open-air composting facilities could pose health risks to residents.
The Daily Telegraph (27 June) and the Daily Mail (29 June) claimed that researchers fear that the release of bioaerosols, including bacteria, spores and fungi, from commercial open air composting sites may bring a rise in respiratory infections, asthma and skin complaints among nearby residents unless the sites are properly regulated.
The articles cited work carried out by the Environment Agency and Cranfield University, entitled Evaluating the quality of bioaerosol risk assessment for composting facilities in England and Wales published in April 2009, which found that out of 44 composting sites surveyed, only eight had adequate risk assessments in place to prevent bioaerosols posing a risk to the surrounding area.
An Environment Agency spokeswoman said: Bioaerosols are present in our everyday environment and there is a general risk associated with them. There is currently no evidence to suggest that waste facilities contribute overall to exposure to bioaerosols.
The EA regulates all composting facilities and requires each site to keep dust, odour and bioaerosols to a minimum. There are some permitting exemptions, such as an allowance to treat a maximum of 4,000 tonnes a year. The EA believes that threshold is too high and the general scope of the exemption too high. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Welsh Assembly are reviewing this policy and we expect the exemption to be reduced.
Renewable energy firm New Earth Solutions managing director Peter Mills said that he welcomed the debate from the articles. He said: We foresaw these issues arising a long time ago and so we developed fully closed systems. We are pleased that this issue has been woken up to.
Mill said that there were weaknesses in open-air in-vessel composting systems and that they could cause nuisance issues such as odours and bioaerosols.
He added that there were challenges that local authorities had to meet in terms of procuring future proof technologies and not the cheapest solutions. He said: Local authorities have to make sure that they assess the environmental impact of any technology they procure to make sure that it is robust.
Association for Organics Recycling managing director Jeremy Jacobs said that there was insufficient evidence to support the newspaper articles views and the only way to prove it would be to conduct prolonged studies on people who live near composting sites. He added: I think the articles took things out of context. More than four million tonnes of organic materials are currently being successfully composted in the UK ever year at compost sites and are running without any risk to residents living nearby.
The articles have picked out one site in the Midlands that had to be closed down.
The big issue here is to ensure that sites are appropriately located in the first place.
He said that the sites should be close to where the arisings are and that the EA would only issue permits to sites that posed no risks to the surrounding area. Where there are houses or workplaces within 250 metres of the composting site boundary, the composting site owner must provide the EA with a bioaerosol risk assessment which shows that people will not be put at undue risk from the new facility, before it considers granting an environmental permit.
Jacobs explained that in the future there will be a trend for the UK to build enclosed in-vessel composting sites as more local authorities start collecting food waste to divert it from landfill.
Under the Animal-By Products Regulations, food waste from the kitchen has to go through an approved in-vessel composting facility.
Compost sites can be well managed without causing problems to local communities. Anyone who walks thorough the woods in autumn will be exposed to bioaerosols at higher levels than living near a compost site, Jacobs said.