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How to get ahead in organics

According to WRAP figures, the UK has seen a rapid rise in the uptake of composting during the past 10 years. We have moved from 0.5 million tonnes of organic waste being composted in 1998 to 3.6 million tonnes in 2006/07. This has continued to increase significantly, and the UK produced 5.1 million tonnes of compost in 2008/09, creating an industry with a £266m turnover.

The agricultural market is the biggest end-user of compost from organic waste and has tripled in size in the past six years, now taking 1.7 million tonnes of compost a year. It is mainly used in landscaping, horticulture and agriculture applications, but more
end uses are being found to optimise the benefits of this natural material.

“Organic material is about more than just compost,” says Association for Organics Recycling managing director Jeremy Jacobs. “It is an asset that should be optimised by producing heat and energy because, at the moment, its full potential is not being realised. Compost can also capture carbon while giving nutrient benefits to land. It is helping to reduce land degradation and helps organic matter levels, which have been dropping in this country. Compost plays an important role in bringing this back.”

In fact, the spotlight is shining brightly on organic materials as the potential for a shortfall in energy supply becomes more real. Combining the abundance of organic waste and Government drivers in energy and carbon reduction targets, with emerging technologies that can extract energy from the material, composting consultant Craig Benton believes more and more focus will be on what he calls “bioenergy projects” - organic feedstocks that produce energy.

“Renewables are catching fire - they are becoming more cost-effective for communities and businesses,” he says. “The big PFI schemes promoted waste because they were too big and continued for too long. There was too much risk taken on by the private contractor, which would have to guarantee waste arisings for years, which then led to over-predictions.”

Bioenergy technologies such as anaerobic digestion (AD), biomass, gasification and pyrolysis are better suited to smaller facilities. So with the death of the waste PFI and more focus from Government on localism, it seems the time is right for more compact technologies.

Benton continues: “When I first came to Britain from the US, it was very difficult for businesses to get composting plants up and running. Now, everything has changed. The Government is very encouraging with its emphasis on AD, while WRAP has been key in research developments.”

Currently, any Government incentives put in place are for waste-to-energy facilities rather than composting although, according to WRAP, it is possible this may change as the Department of Energy and Climate Change finalises financial incentive schemes. So how do businesses go about tapping into this growth area, and how do you choose the right technology for you?

“What type of facility will fit really depends on the business you have, in terms of what are your energy needs and what type of feedstock you might be producing,” says Benton. “For example, if you are in the waste water industry, you will have a lot of wet material, which would work best with an AD plant. So the first thing you need to do is see what waste material you can get your hands on - and there is plenty of waste out there that is not being treated.”

Fuel, electricity and heat can all be produced from bioenergy technologies. So, as a business, the benefit of each would need to be calculated, bearing in mind that the energy could be sold to a third party or utilised on-site. Feedstock quality is essential because this is what will determine the volume and composition of the energy output. If there is not enough calorific value, nothing can be produced. Gate fees will also be determined by feedstock because the better the quality of organic waste, the lower they will be.

The next step is to scale up the facility. Benton believes that for a company hoping to simply meet its own energy needs, a plant which generates up to 100kW is needed. If it is being used to grow the business or expand a service to customers, a plant of not more than 1MW is necessary. Any larger than 1MW would be an independent project for a large-scale facility.

“Scale, in turn, affects size, cost, financing options and time to develop the project as well as time to fruition,” he adds. “There is going to be a lot of competition for feedstock in the future. When the same trend happened in Germany, companies were able to charge a gate fee. But as more and more firms emerged, competition became fierce and pushed the gate fee down. In some cases, companies were actually paying for material.”

Connecting the feedstock and output together is, of course, the technology. WRAP has found AD to be a “rapidly expanding sector”, with 48 facilities currently online and another 36 in the building or commissioning stage. WRAP has been working closely with Defra on its AD Framework Strategy. It has also been working with stakeholders in the entire supply chain of the composting industry to ensure there is a robust evidence base.

Benton says: “There is a role for everything. There is no either/or technology because they all work well together, utilising different feedstocks and generating different energies. We are going to need multiple technologies to deal with the current energy crisis facing the UK, so developments of these bioenergy technologies will happen in the next decade.”

But with such a rapidly growing and commercially viable industry, it is inevitable that some organisations may try to cash in but not necessarily play within the rules.

Environment Agency (EA) head of industry and waste regulation Martin Bigg says there are quality challenges facing the composting industry because, echoing Benton, quality feedstock leads to quality products. “There is a pressure on companies to recover such a large number of different waste streams. But it is not appropriate to use materials in organics that do not break down because they end up lying on top of the land once the material has been spread as compost. For instance, heavy metals that do not degrade are sometimes mixed in with compost.”

Bigg says there is a problem in the sector where illegal operators are not using appropriate materials for the land - something that must be tackled by the EA.

He continues: “Our challenge at the EA is that we must ensure we have a clear, appropriate and consistent approach. So we have put in place a lot of tools and permits in which we can do this. We are all in favour of quality recycling and reprocessing, but we are against the use of materials that bring harm to the environment. Businesses [in the sector] must take responsibility and ensure that a good quality feedstock is used. The composting industry cannot afford to allow standards to drop, which would then cause its reputation to also drop.”

Jacobs agrees: “We need to support our industry and drive out the cowboys, especially if growth continues in this industry, to ensure we don’t muddy the industry’s reputation. The EA wants to encourage responsible operators who shouldn’t be undercut by shoddy operators, and we definitely support them in this view. It is a strong message that the EA is cracking down on people but, at the same time, they don’t want to stifle growth.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • Martin Bigg may be ill informed about the agricultural requirements of inputs including waste derived inputs.
    All focus has been taken away from 'Benefit to Agriculture' and for some reason the focus is on inputs being bio-degradable. We have in the past used many mineral rich waste streams, which are essential to plant growth, but would not be classed as readily bio-degradable. That is if the EA could actually say what they class as bio-degradable, as they are unable to supply an acceptable threshold.
    In short; No artificial fertilisers used in agriculture, such as Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potash or trace elements such as Sulphur would be classed as bio-degradable! Organic matter in soils in only part of the soils requirement to grow healthy crops. Our soils have been depleted of nutrients including many minerals that can be found in many waste streams, that are now having to go to landfill because of the ill thought out wording in EA guidelines.
    We need experts in each particular field, with hands on knowledge designing the rules of engagement.
    We have many opportunities to open other recycling facilities providing cost effective solutions to many suitable waste streams, but we will not invest until the EA gets it's act together as it is commercial suicide with goal posts constantly moving, and individual officers reading different interpretations into vague guidelines.
    Sorry for the rant. But we have been a fully licenced facility operating incident free for over 5 years, cracking down on the cowboys is 5 years too late, and do not treat good operators in the same way as the cowboys.
    Stifling growth is exactly what is happening!
    I could go on!

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