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Is open windrow composting under threat from the over-cautious?

This month, the Planning Inspectorate dismissed an appeal by Veolia Environmental Services (VES) against a decision of Nottinghamshire County Council to reject its proposal for the construction of an open-windrow composting facility.

The facility was proposed for a site next to food processing and packaging business Fresh Growers. In his appeal decision report, inspector Terrence Kemmann-Lane said he was “persuaded that the proposed development has the potential to actually risk human health and contamination of product” at the food processing plant as well as the health of neighbouring residential occupiers.

“The science to support this is reasonably persuasive while present scientific understanding of bioaerosols, the way they behave and their health impacts does not provide suitable methodology for carrying out adequate quantitative SSBRAs [site-specific bioaerosol risk assessments] for new composting facilities which would provide reassurance.”

So is this an indicator of the way decisions are going for future open windrow composting sites and does it reflect an over-cautious approach to bioaerosols?

Association for Organics Recycling (AfOR) managing director Jeremy Jacobs said: “I think it is overkill. There is this fear-factor associated with bioaerosols and it’s a fear of the unknown. They are taking a very precautionary stance [in this case]. I suspect it won’t help the cause of the nearly six million tonnes of organics waste processed last year. Of that, 70-75% is green waste, and [it is processed] outdoors because of the cost.”

AfOR board director John Jardine echoed this view, adding: “Composting is the oldest form of waste management, and this is about measuring risk without any evidence. This decision could make life very difficult for the composting industry, so it needs to be considered carefully.”

Another factor, raised by Agrivert commercial director Harry Waters, is what messages such decisions are likely to send. “It is important that the precautionary approach does not lead the public to believe that composting activities are dangerous because this has simply not been proven,” he said. “The proximity of waste sites to local receptors is relevant when any waste site is selected, and this is more important with treating organic wastes.”

For Jacobs, one of the key issues involved with the drive to enclose composting sites is the cost involved.

“In Germany and the Netherlands, most processes are carried out indoors with biofilters and scrubbers. That is fine, but they are being paid. For £15-£17 a tonne you can’t do that - you can do it outside and that’s as good as it gets.”

“Operators would not have a problem with that if they were paid a gate fee which sustained it,” he said. “Gate fees have fallen significantly in the past five years. On the one hand you have got policy saying that we have to tighten up and go for enclosures because of risks we’re not sure about, and on the other hand you have got local authorities not prepared to pay what’s needed.

“In Germany and the Nether-lands, most of these processes are carried out indoors with biofilters and scrubbers. That is fine, but they are being paid. For £15-£17 a tonne you can’t do that - you can do it outside and that’s as good as it gets.”

Last November the Environment Agency put out a revised position statement on bioaerosols, essentially tightening up regulations and confirming that composting operations within 250m of homes/workplaces need SSBRAs. Jacobs said the 250m ruling was “sensible” but the issue lies in how it is interpreted.

In the VES case, revised plans had the composting pad located just over 250m from the Fresh Growers site, but the conveyor belt and storage area within the 250m limit. The compost storage building and loading area were, however, within 60m of the nearest part of the Fresh Growers building.

Kemmann-Lane concluded that “it would not be sensible to permit a development…which by its nature could have serious impact on the [Fresh Growers] business”, and took into account the “evidence that perception risk could be harmful to the continuing success of [Fresh Growers]”.

VES is viewing the decision as a site-specific issue, and said the case would not change its policy towards using open windrow composting facilities.

Jacobs also thinks such composting still has a place, as long as suitable sites are found: “Finding locations is the big issue, because sites which are not in close proximity to properties are increasingly difficult to find.”

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