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Sweeping away doubt

At the start of the year, Welsh environment minister John Griffiths congratulated the people of Wales on their success in recycling 49% of their waste between July and September 2011. These are the highest quarterly recycling figures ever recorded in Wales - and in England for that matter. While the statistics make encouraging reading, they also highlight an interesting trend: when it comes to recycling, Wales appears to be getting it ‘more right’ than their cousins across Offa’s Dyke.

The driving force behind the Welsh success is a combination of ambitious, yet attainable, recycling targets, backed by the threat of financial penalties. The Welsh Assembly Government’s targets require each Welsh council to recycle 70% of municipal waste by 2025 and achieve interim targets of 52% by 2012/13, 58% by 2015/16 and 64% by 2019/20.

In comparison, last June’s Governmental Review of Waste Policy, set an overall recycling target for England of only 50% by 2020. It also opted not to set recycling targets for every English local authority. 

Welsh authorities have been able to achieve these targets by concentrating on recycling domestic waste. But to hit future targets, they will need to focus on the remaining waste streams, such as road sweepings and gully waste. Gritbusters has just opened its third road sweeping recycling facility in Wales and has a fourth facility in the north-east of England. By weight, this waste stream represents a significant proportion yet to be fully recycled. 

But, despite these imposing targets, recycling of this material is still hampered by a lack of clarity about the regulatory status of sweeper and gully waste. Misconceptions about its composition and industry-wide confusion over which, if any, protocols apply to the recycling of this material are also stifling recovery rates.

The status of sweeper and gully waste has been contested for some time. In accordance with the European Waste Catalogue (EWC), gully and sweeper waste is listed under 20 03 03, a non-hazardous waste category. More recently, the 2010 memorandum of agreement between the Environment Agency (EA) and the Highways Agency commented that gully and sweeper waste should be potentially classified as hazardous. So which is correct?

Some assume that because 20 03 03 is a non-hazardous waste entry, the material is suitable for disposal at inert landfill sites. But this not necessarily the case because suitability for landfilling is determined by the Waste Acceptance Criteria, not the EWC code. Confusion also centres around the composition of road sweeping material and, in particular, the potential for the waste to contain elevated mineral oils, heavy metals and total organic carbon concentrations.  

Despite this, some councils and waste contractors continue to classify the untreated waste as inert, thereby avoiding payment of full landfill tax and allowing the material to be accepted by inert waste landfills. While in private many accept that this is wrong, most are prepared to keep doing it until the regulatory status of the material is clarified or more strongly enforced.

There is a widespread misconception that composting this waste stream is always the best available recycling option. But the composition of this type of waste changes across the seasons and may not always be suitable for this process. Given the level of confusion within the industry, it is understandable that even unintentional malpractice in dealing with road waste is becoming the norm. More clarity is needed.

However, as demonstrated in Wales, it is only by adopting new technology to fully recover sweeper, gully and other waste streams that the more ambitious recycling targets can be achieved. But to do so, the industry requires leadership and direction from the EA to ensure that the legislation is properly enforced across the whole country, and appropriate guidance is given to councils on the categorisation and treatment of such waste streams.

George Anderson is director of Siltbuster that produces Gritbuster

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