Industry figures have cast doubt on environment secretary Michael Gove’s claim that waste can be stockpiled near to ports if there is a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
Gove said in a letter that most waste could continue to be shipped to the EU because notifications could be ‘rolled over’ for 92% of the tonnage involved following successful negotiations, while talks continued on the remainder.
Refuse-derived fuel (RDF) formed “by far the largest” category of waste destined for EU plants after Brexit, with 3.6 million tonnes exported last year of which 15% went through Dover.
The letter to Lord Teverson, chair of a House of Lords committee dealing with European environmental matters, said the Environment Agency had assessed capacity for stockpiling RDF in the south-east and was “ready to respond to requests from industry for additional storage of waste”.
It could also allow waste sites to temporarily exceed their normal maximum storage.
The Environment Agency (EA) said a “range of sites” were already available and granted permissions to take a “wide range” of waste. The agency added there were no plans to relax or change permit controls.
An EA spokesperson said: “As part of responsible preparations for no deal, the EA’s local inspection teams are working with industry to assess the availability sites for possible storage of waste exports.”
Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association, said: “As well as this potential stockpiling issue and the possibility of extra landfilling of waste previously due for export, other concerns remain, such as the reliance of parts of the recycling industry on EU labour forces and the ability to retain and recruit after Brexit.”
He added: “Be in no doubt, a no-deal Brexit will be damaging for many parts of the British economy and our sector will not be immune to this.”
Bywaters managing director John Glover said that even if Gove was right about stockpiling capacity, “the main problems could arise from the lack of vehicles entering the UK that would normally pick up a return load of RDF and deliver to northern Europe”.
He added: “Even if these vehicles arrive, the operators and drivers may perceive that carrying RDF will lead to extra delays, so they may decide to return empty to the continent. If everything else appears OK, it could be the lack of return load vehicles that leads to shippers being unable to consign the product. Perhaps this is the bigger risk.”
Glover said most storage sites were “routinely short of space”. If baled RDF had to be stored on airfields, “the biggest risk would then be fire and 24-hour security – at least one fire-fighting vehicle with adequate access to water would be needed continuously on-site”.
Jakob Rindegren, Environmental Services Association recycling policy adviso, said: ”RDF cannot be stored for a long period before degrading and needing to be disposed of in landfill. So yes, as a last resort landfilling of RDF might be needed during a period of temporary disruption. Our members have contingency plans for a no deal Brexit to minimise the impact as much as possible and ensure they continue to manage their waste responsibly.”
This article was updated on 30 January to include a statement from the EA and from the ESA