Navigating climate uncertainty: Strategic planning with imperfect data
by Sam Gill
This article highlights a selection of the key events within the UK waste sector which have arisen over the past six months and their impacts on a range of operators.
Research commissioned by the Environment Agency (EA) in 2021 indicated that chemicals used within fire retardants in some soft furnishings are likely to exceed safe limits of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).
While these chemicals are believed to present a low risk to human health during their useful life, the potential release of these chemicals when the products containing them are damaged or become waste has hastened a variety of industry changes in recent months, including increasing the costs of managing Waste Upholstered Domestic Seating (WUDS).
In August 2022, the EA wrote to all Councils outlining the need to achieve compliance in the management of WUDS, asking that each Council confirm that its activities were compliant by 31st December 2022. The key change is that waste upholstered seating needs to be collected separately and disposed of through incineration. This means if you handle WUDS you will need new processes and if you are disposing of them then there may be extra costs coming your way. Anecdotal evidence suggests that commercial prices in excess of £50 per sofa or £25 per chair are already being levied by companies to cover the costs associated with achieving compliance.
Faced with implementing a range of potential changes to both facilities and operational practices, the waste industry needed time to be able to achieve compliance. In late December 2022, the EA released three new Regulatory Position Statements (RPS) and further guidance on the management of POPs in WUDs, specifically:
RPSs allow certain activities to take place without the need for an operator to obtain or vary an existing Environmental Permit. These RPSs prescribed the details on how the specific activities to which they refer should take place, and stipulated a range of deadlines for operators to submit information about the changes which they would be making to achieve full compliance. It is understood that a further RPS is in development to cover transfer activities relating to WUDs.
The EA has said that an initial review of operator compliance will take part in the early part of 2023, with detailed on-site compliance activity taking place from August 2023.
A broad range of stakeholders already have or are likely to be soon impacted by these changes including:
Already under significant financial pressures, Local Councils have needed to grapple with implementing swift changes in their services to demonstrate, or move toward, compliance. This has typically involved:
The changes required have created an uncomfortable, and still unclear, transition phase for which very few will have fully costed and well-developed plans in place to manage. Some Councils are understood to have introduced temporary measures to help better understand the scale, cost, and complexities of managing this waste stream differently, without necessarily committing to substantive contractual variations and rate changes.
Contractors Providing Council Services
Contractors providing waste management services to Councils will also need to review and interpret contractual positions, to determine how the changes in services are to be managed and funded between the parties, by confirming and establishing where the responsibility for new compliance activity, equipment and resources sits.
Retail Takeback Schemes / Office Refurb and Clearance
Companies delivering new furniture and collecting old furniture have needed (or still need) to consider how such items are stored and transported and that their downstream disposal arrangements are compliant for WUDS containing POPs.
Furniture Re Use Organisations / Charities
Domestic seating represents some of the items most commonly identified and collected for reuse donations. Its ability to be reused has had to be reassessed in the context of POPs compliance, with concerns that these organisations (potentially those least well equipped to absorb any increase in costs) could bear the financial burden of others who may be trying to limit their losses.
Waste Transfer Stations
Commercial operators of waste transfer sites should also have reviewed and amended their approach to managing WUDS, determining to what extent their existing operations need to be modified to achieve compliance. In some cases, this has resulted in price increases on a per item basis for WUDS.
Those operating shredders are having to grapple with what compliance means in the context of air pollution abatement and how this can be implemented.
WUDs containing POPs (and residues from WUDs processing) cannot be landfilled. Landfill operators need to demonstrate, via their waste acceptance procedures, that these items are being screened out and quarantined. This has required widespread communications and notifications to existing customers regarding waste acceptance.
EfW operators play a vital role in sector wide compliance, needing to calculate and adjust for the impact of WUDS on their handling procedures, feedstock calorific values, emissions and processing capacity. UK facility capacity is available, but is not always geographically well spread.
With each facility addressing this from a different baseline position, the coming 6-12 months will see new data and adaptations taking place to embed the flow of WUDs into the recovery pathway.
SRF/ RDF Exporters
Ensuring materials containing WUDs are correctly classified described and notified as part of the relevant export documentation.
The flurry of activity surrounding POPs in WUDs has certainly brought about some rapid changes in traditional waste management systems in recent months. However, there are concerns that this is just the beginning. With flame retardants used in a wide variety of other products such as beds, curtains, and mattresses, the POPs waves are likely to roll in for many years to come. Which begs the question of what role extended producer responsibility (EPR) could, or should, play in the future management of these items?
We have recent experience of working with both public and private sector clients in supporting responses to managing POPs in WUDs.
SLR can offer a broad range of technical advice to help your organisation understand its compliance obligations, identify adaptations which may be needed to achieve compliance and explore opportunities to future proof your activities as the management of POPs evolves. We work across all elements of the waste sector, drawing on experience from infrastructure development, process engineering, permitting / planning support, and contract negotiations to ensure the delivery of cost effective, compliant solutions to our clients.