The UK has lagged behind other countries in Europe for decades when it comes to sustainable waste practices. Only Ireland, Portugal and Greece had worse recycling rates.
The widespread availability of sites, such as disused quarries, made landfill a cheap option for the disposal of municipal waste in the UK, compared with recycling and recovery. However, changes to the policy and regulatory agenda in Europe, and in particular the 1999 EU Landfill Directive, forced waste authorities to modify their practices. In this context, off-the-shelf incineration technologies for energy recovery were an attractive ‘technological fix’ for many local authorities.
The structure of the waste sector is unchanged whether disposing of waste by landfill or incineration. Both landfill and incineration systems are relatively simple and centralised: mixed waste is picked up from households, transported, compressed, and either buried or burnt. Innovation is also still provided by engineering firms and machine suppliers. Radically changing a relatively simple and centralised system into a distributed, highly complex, multi-technology solution privileging recycling is much harder to achieve. Yet the GMWDA has done just this.
Bucking the national trend, Greater Manchester has undergone a radical transformation of the way it handles municipal waste. The new waste solution in Greater Manchester relies on households separating waste into recycling and composting streams and minimising the waste they put directly into the bin.
Using the latest separation technologies, a Materials Recovery Facility (MRFs), sorts co-mingled recyclates into high quality materials suitable for the market. Four in-vessel composting (IVC) plants convert kitchen and garden waste into compost which is also sold on. Waste not separated by households for recycling or composting is sent to one of five mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plants that sort some recyclable material physically and break down organic material into biogas via anaerobic digestion. This biogas can be used to generate power.
The remaining residual waste is then converted into Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) and burnt in a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) facility, supplying both steam and electricity at a stable and relatively low price to one of the UKs biggest energy users.
The results of this transformation have been dramatic. In 2001, 86% of household waste was sent to landfill. By 2011, the amount of household waste to landfill reduced to 50%. At the same time recycling and composting rates rose from 5.2% in 2001 to 42.4% in 2011.
But achieving a ‘green’ solution has not been easy. The Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA) is the largest Waste Disposal Authority (WDA) in England and serves over 958,000 homes across nine local authorities (Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside and Trafford). Failure to meet European Landfill Diversion Targets could have resulted in fines of £150 per tonne. Given that they handle 5% of the UK’s total volume of household waste, the GMWDA was under intense pressure to change its waste practices.
After an initial proposal for incineration, put forward in 1998 was rejected a new executive team, led by Clllr Neil Swannick, began creating an environmentally-friendly waste solution that maximised recycling and composting. Implementing this environmental vision required radical system change and was a major challenge, involving significant resources.
The new waste solution in Greater Manchester is a result of the UK’s largest ever waste management contract. In 2005 The GMWDA was awarded a record £100m of Government Private Finance Initiative (PFI) credits and embarked on a major public procurement exercise. The resulting 25 year waste management contract is the largest waste PFI in Western Europe, worth over £4bn.
The GMWDA were active clients in the transformation and engaged with a diverse range of stakeholders to coordinate the change. In 2002 households were asked about their preferences for waste treatment strategies and their willingness to sort waste into different streams. Initial consultations proved the public’s preference for recycling over incineration. Potential outlets were identified for each of the separated waste streams (paper and cardboard, textiles, metals, plastics, glass as well as local compost markets).
In parallel, a system was put in place to collect and process waste data from the nine local authorities to overcome the previous lack of data on waste flow and composition. This was critical as household behaviours, waste collection and waste management practices had to match in order for a recycling and composting waste strategy to be delivered.
The results of the household survey, together with technical, financial and environmental assessments of various waste management solutions, were combined into the 2003 Greater Manchester Waste Management Strategy (GMWMS). The strategy set a recycling target of 50% by 2020—well above the statutory targets imposed by government at the time – and sent a clear signal to the market.
The authority also had to change the way waste disposal services were paid for in Greater Manchester. The levy that local authorities paid to the GMWDA for waste services was based on council tax contributions. The GMWDA and the nine waste collection authorities agreed to apportion charges on the tonnage of waste to incentivise recycling and recovery solutions. In consultation with the collection authorities and the community sector a better alignment of the different collection systems was also achieved. Collection infrastructure was renewed and the GMWDA secured significant funds from central government to improve recycling facilities, and deliver extensive promotional campaigns to increase household participation in recycling.
The GMWDA actively looked to develop a market for SRF and identified potential SRF users in the region. The authority also sought to clarify the government’s position in relation to whether SRF could be defined as biomass and therefore eligible for renewal energy subsidies. Finally, the GMWDA had to oversee the transfer of the assets of their arms-length waste company (GMWL) including its 600 employees, to the winning contractor. The contract with Viridor Laing (Greater Manchester) Limited (VLGM) was finally signed in 2009, despite delays caused by the financial crisis, the majority of the 42 facilities across 27 sites in Greater Manchester are now completed and fully operational.
A mix of political vision, scale economies and stakeholder engagement enabled the successful completion of the contract. A clear political ambition and shared vision informed the project throughout. From the outset, it was clear that the authority was seeking a waste management system solution that was recycling and composting led. The active engagement of environmental groups, local authority officials and planning authorities, as well as the use of existing sites, secured a high level of buy-in and reduced the level of objection to the plan. Given the difficulties in obtaining planning permission for waste treatment plants, the fact that no permission was rejected or appealed was exceptional for a project of this scale.
The level of leadership and expertise gathered by the GMWDA to carry the project forward was critical. The GMWDA managed to put together a team with a strong mix of commercial and procurement skills.This team included, Paul Dunn, GMWDA’s executive director, procurement director Tim Judson, seconded from Defra, Edward Pysden a consultant at Eversheds, and John Bland, treasurer and deputy clerk. In combination they had the necessary strong skills to deliver the project. The authority also made the most of the expertise and resource available centrally, actively engaging with relevant networks and government departments and agencies throughout the life of the project.
Active market engagement early on in the process and sheer scale of the project, enabled the GMWDA to attract a more sustainable mix of technologies and activate the market for SRF, which at the time was limited in the UK. The scale and ambition of the project and its potential to make a significant contribution to the delivery of the national waste agenda secured government backing during the financial crisis when a number of key banks pulled out of the project.
The GMWDA 2011 Statement of Accounts reports that the £631m investment has increased costs to households by £1 per week. However, this compares favourably with maintaining a landfill strategy, which would have cost households an estimated £2 per week in landfill tax and penalties.
The experience in Greater Manchester illustrates the challenges associated with the radical transformation of waste systems. It also shows that there is a role for the public sector to invest in large scale infrastructure projects that can make a positive environmental contribution.
Technologies Being Developed
- A new Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) will sort the kerbside recyclable materials (commingled) into the different material types, from where they will then be sent for recycling.
- New Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) and Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plants will process organic material to produce gases which will be harnessed to generate sustainable renewable power (‘green electricity’), and compost-like material. Each site will produce around 2 MW of power, half of which will run the site with the rest fed into the National Grid.
- Some of the residual waste that cannot be recycled, instead of being sent to landfill, will be processed into Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF), through the MBT process, for use by chemical producer Ineos Chlor for energy production at its plant at Runcorn. The 275,000 tonnes of fuel fed to the Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant will produce electricity and steam, replacing energy generated from non-renewable sources.
- The Bolton Thermal Recovery Facility (TRF) will continue to operate, taking the remaining residual waste which cannot be recycled.
- 4 new In-Vessel Composting (IVC) facilities will treat garden and food waste to produce quality compost.
- The 2 existing Green Waste Shredding (GWS) Facilities will be improved for continued operation.
- Existing Transfer Loading Stations (TLS) will be furbished, along with the creation of new TLSs. These are strategically located such as to minimise travel by facility vehicles, reducing road miles and carbon emissions.
- 4 public education centres (2 existing and 2 new) will provide educational resources for school, community and other interested groups.
- The network of Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) is being overhauled, including new sites and modernised facilities, with the retention of existing HWRCs.
Dr Sally Gee and Dr Elvira Uyarra are researchers at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester.