Fears over increased landfill costs and the impact on recycling targets is prompting local authorities and waste bodies to carry out nationwide trials on leaf litter contamination.
Concerns have been raised following the Environment Agency’s (EA) confirmation that leaf fall collections are waste and cannot be used for compost. Many local authorities have been composting leaf collections, but limited tests in Wales confirmed the “need for a precautionary approach to composting of this waste”, according to the EA.
Local authorities say that putting all leaf fall in landfill will cost thousands of pounds more, is environmentally unfriendly, and will impact on their recycling targets.
Angus Ross, executive member for the environment at Wokingham Borough Council, which has a waste partnership with Reading and Bracknell councils, said: “The facility where we send the leaf fall cannot take it following the EA guidance and we now have to pay £64 per tonne to put it in landfill.”
John Tanner, cabinet member for Cleaner Greener Oxford on the City Council, said that although tests showing contamination had to be taken seriously, the results were being taken out of proportion.
“We should be looking at ways to see if we can clean up any contamination or other ways to deal with it, but the agency is just saying ‘stop’ which isn’t useful,” he said.
The Association for Organics Recycling (AfOR) has called for interest from local authorities in helping carry out more detailed investigation to the level of contamination in leaf litter.
Managing director of AfOR, Jeremy Jacobs, said that he wanted to conduct wider tests than the EA’s previous trials of four local authorities in Wales, which confirmed the presence of metals such as nickel, copper, chromium, molybdenum, zinc and other contaminants in leaf litter from rural street sweepings.
“The amount of leaf litter collection is significant, and there can be a big difference in the cost of dealing with it as compost or landfill,” he said. “We want to determine if there is a contamination problem, and if so what is the size of the problem. There’s also likely to be a big variation between leaf litter from gulleys and from roads, and between rural areas and urban areas.”
The National Association of Waste Disposal Officers (NAWDO) said that the confusion seemed to have arisen because it was not previously clear that leaf litter was classed as street sweepings.
A spokesman highlighted that the EA has said there are issues with the data from the trial and complained that the methodology for collecting the leaves during the trial had not been outlined. Arguing that different methods should be considered, the spokesman said: “Leaves collected manually contain less of the waste that has been sat directly on the street and should be less contaminated than those collected mechanically.”
However the confusion does not seem to be universal. Another senior waste management figure said: “The Environment Agency hasn’t changed its advice. Leaf fall has always been classified as non-recyclable waste. We have always considered our leaf fall waste.”
The EA has said that it “will continue to review evidence provided on the composting of separate leaf litter collections”.