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New technologies cause significant rise in waste sector pollution

Pollution incidents in the waste sector rose in 2012 despite a fall in instances of pollution across all UK industries that year, and overall instances having halved since 2000.

A report published by the Environment Agency (EA) said the number of waste management incidents increased markedly in 2012, with increases across most of the sub-sectors of the industry.

EA said that waste management was among the industries that cause the most pollution and some of the more serious incidents. Pollution incidents range from large fires and chemical releases to shipping disasters, farm slurry spills, odours from waste sites and faulty sewerage systems.

Waste-related pollution incidents are increasing, “particularly in relation to odour and newer technologies” (see EA data below).

pollution incidents 2008-2012

Issues with AD

The report highlighted odours released from composting organic waste as particularly problematic.

It acknowledged that growth in the treatment of organics through anaerobic digestion (AD), composting and biofuels had increased, leading to less waste going to landfill and more energy recovery. But EA said: “there has been a disproportionate number of incidents coming from these treatment sites, which is causing nuisance to local communities and is damaging business reputation.”

EA deployed air quality monitoring teams more than 20 times in the last three years - 80% of these incidents related to the waste sector.

Recent AD site instances also involved the loss of millions of litres of liquid waste.

For every 100 waste permits issued for AD there are 8.8 pollution incidents, which is the highest of any waste technology. The next highest figures are composting at 2.8 per 100. These ratios are significantly higher than for other technologies.

The agency said it has been working with the waste sector to seek to reduce the number and severity of incidents involving odour, dust and noise coming from treating biological waste, landfills, waste treatment and transfer sites.

Green Fence concerns

Furthermore, EA highlights tougher rules on exports to China as a major concern. It has seen a decline in the amount of waste plastics, paper and other recyclables exported to China from England. It said it is monitoring this change to ensure that the treatment and recovery of these waste streams continues to take place in an environmentally sound manner.

But the EA said it wants to make it clear that almost all pollution incidents are preventable with proper management.

  • The Agency dealt with about 16,000 pollution incidents in 2012, of which 617 were serious and significant. In 2012-2013, £1.1 million was levied in fines for cases of pollution.

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