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Investigating the science of waste wood fires

Handbook fire

Calculating the quantity of waste wood available in the UK each year cannot be described as an exact science. Recyclers keep their cards very close to their chests. But the various estimates of the total put it at around 4.5 million tonnes.

The export last year of more than 500,000 tonnes of waste wood indicates that the UK has not yet reached parity of supply and demand. But this may be getting closer after the completion of the seven biomass power stations totalling more than one million tonnes a year currently under construction.

Changes to Renewables Obligation Certificates, Feed-in Tariffs and the Renewable Heat Incentive will inevitably affect future biomass projects, and so the signs are that the waste wood biomass market in the UK may be levelling off soon.

The challenge for wood recyclers to safely store wood during the summer period of high availability and low demand to meet the high demand and low availability during the winter suddenly became even more challenging when regulations were tightened in spring 2015.

Faced with pressure from the Government to deal with the number of fires at waste management sites, the Environment Agency introduced a Fire Prevention Plans (FPP) document in March without any consultation with the fire and rescue service or industry.

There is no disputing that fires are a problem at waste sites. But the impact of regulations always seems to be felt most by the compliant operators who are targeted for minor infringements while those with a more cavalier attitude to risk are able to continue unchallenged.

Ultimately, the fire problem is about storage space, which is seriously limited by stack sizes and separation distances imposed by the FPP. But without any science to support either sides’ view, the recyclers and the regulators are currently at an impasse.

A programme of full-scale fire tests, which aim to provide some much-needed science, is currently underway but, for all sorts of reasons, the project is progressing at little more than glacial speed.

The first round of tests were completed in December 2014 and, at the time of writing more than 10 months later, the second round are in danger of more delay or even cancellation because of the very problem they hope to overcome.

Ten thousand tonnes of abandoned waste, which has been burning for months, is causing untold misery for people living at Great Heck, a village next to the proposed site of the second round of fire tests for wood. It is going to be difficult to persuade those living nearby that the solution to their immediate problem will come from creating more smoke from more fires by holding the tests so close to the abandoned site.

The abandoned site is the perfect example of why we need better regulation and the impact an irresponsibly run site can have on people and the environment. It is truly appalling, and my heart goes out to the people living nearby, some of whom have been hospitalised as a consequence of smoke.

Waste has been crammed into every square inch and there is no space to spread it out to extinguish it. Meanwhile arguments continue about who is responsible for dealing with it and for paying the bill.

We can only hope that the fire tests can go ahead and the science derived from them, combined with the lessons learnt from dealing with the abandoned site and others like it, will lead to a pragmatic solution to storage capacities which is acceptable to all sides.

WRA waste wood grades in brief

  • Grade A: Clean recycled wood

This includes solid softwood and hardwood, packaging waste, scrap pallets, packing cases and cable drums and is used to manufacture animal bedding, horticultural mulches and for the panelboard sector.

  • Grade B: Industrial feedstock grade

This includes ‘grade A’ material plus construction and demolition waste and material from transfer stations. This is suitable for the manufacture of panelboard products, including chipboard and medium density fibreboard.

  • Grade C: Fuel grade

This is made from all of the above material plus material from municipal collections, recycling centres, transfer stations and civic amenity sites. Material within this grade includes fencing products, flat pack furniture made from board products and DIY materials. This is suitable for biomass fuel in Waste Incineration Directive-compliant installations.

  • Grade D: Hazardous waste

This includes all grades of wood including treated material such as fencing, transmission poles and railway sleepers, and requires disposal at special facilities.

Further information (page 21)

Simon Dowson is director of the Wood Recyclers Association

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