BAN Waste Select Committee evidence

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Phase 1 Day 6 2001-10-15 Robin Murray (Ecologika consultancy)

report from minutes of Select Committee

3. Robin Murray, Ecologika

The Chair welcomed Robin Murray and invited him to make his presentation upon which a question and answer session would ensue.

Robin Murray in his introduction said that he hoped Newcastle had some of the conditions to become a pioneer in "zero waste". He emphasised that there was a growing awareness/concern about the dangers of not dealing properly with disposal of waste and this committee had played a part in this. He said that in order to have good waste management it was essential to have the community (broadly defined) in the centre. There must be a continuous presence of the community affected by any waste operation in order to provide contestable auditing of the plants. That is because the permanent features of regulatory establishments are subject to capture and need to have a counterbalance by those communities who are affected by it in order to keep them up to the mark. This country has not really advanced to this point - we have simply left it to the professionals. He would like to adopt the same approach as leading world companies who seem to keep their top financial staff in the back office. In this country we tend to be led by financial people when the lead should be driven by technology and long-term strategy. He emphasised that it was essential for the committee to have long term goals up front then to devise a system which meets those goals - then bring in the financial people to identify costs and this would lead to 2 things: -

  1. A technological strategy to make some of the expensive things cheaper.
  2. A financial strategy to fund it.

The starting point was to be completely clear as to what the goals of any new system devised by the committee were and the committee must be absolutely up front with them and not leave it to a whole lot of firms of City Councils.

He suggested that the four test criteria to judge everything were: -

  1. What was the impact in terms of pollution?
  2. Maximise the reduction of climate change gases.
  3. Lighten load on key natural resources - i.e. forestry and soil.
  4. Identify the enormous gains to be made in terms of resource activity - factors 4 or 10 improvements.

He liked to think about 3 new watch words which were: -

  1. Clean production
  2. Recyclable production
  3. Sufficient production

These would bring in a new era in relation to world resources.

He suggested that it was clear that what was needed was a full stream system with the following components: -

  1. A separate organic collection
  2. A separate door step collection of dry recyclables
  3. A residual collection
  4. A collection of bulky items e.g. furniture etc

Hazardous waste he suggested was a subset of the residual waste stream. Having painted the large picture he wanted to suggest that residuals were where the battlelines were currently drawn. There was a need to draw the line to move towards the recycling of residuals. He suggested that what was needed was a new model of waste planning. The old model reflected the principle of "predict and provide" which brought about large capital plant based on predicted demand. Despite the fact that predictions were starting to go wrong we were still having huge pressure to build big intensive plants and this was costing 60 to 100 million pounds. He suggested that this was unrealistic as it was impossible to predict in an industry which was having the most radical change that had happened in the waste management sector for a century. The main uncertainties lay in following areas: -

On top of this there were major technical uncertainties with a move globally from hydrocarbon economies to carbohydrate economies making it totally impossible for plastics to be come compostable (head of tetropack was developing a system based on chalk could be composted). Furthermore there was a major change in the industry towards echo design which meant that there would be things coming in on producer responsibility already been met by extraordinary changes in the way things were designed etc. With all these uncertainties the idea of putting in a capital-intensive plant was inappropriate, although it could be seen as building up strong pressure not to have change, not to have regulations and taxes. He emphasised that the current method of planning and providing was completely outmoded and there was a need to develop 'flexibility' to deal with change, e.g. if recycling did not produce 60% in five years, but only 20% the mechanics should be in place for it. It was always necessary to keep options open, you get a "strategy of light disposal"

He suggested he would have for Newcastle five principles:-

1. To maximise recycling and establish an infrastructure, not just for municipal waste, but also to attract industrial waste (it was easier than bin collection and saved landfill space). Ask City Council to make recovery targets into recycling targets.

2. In respect of the residual "which will change overtime" this should have a form of neutralisation treatment it would bring you into the realm of mechanical and biological treatment. He said that MBT Plant, which could be built up in modular form could be attached to landfills or transfer stations so that no untreated waste went into landfill - demand this and work out the economics.

3. Never enter into a disposal contract for more than 8-10 years and always make sure that any MBT Plant reverts back to you and not the company.

4. Any existing incineration plant could without doubt be mothballed; left there until 2008.

5. Must have a permanent citizens monitoring system "which will need cash" which will test the disposal management staff independently.

In conclusion, he said that the Government should have a new ruling which gave the rights over the management of waste at any facility to a local trust - must have independent auditing.

In response to the Chair, Robin Murray gave a number of examples of factors 4 or 10

Following Robin Murray's presentation the following questions were asked:-

(Q1) In the models of waste disposal you suggest that the integrated model of waste disposal comes in at "substantially higher cost". Yet Newcastle proposes that this is the lowest cost option. Can you comment please?

By reference to a graph Robin Murray demonstrated that original systems (incineration) started at the lowest cost - the new system (intensive composting and recycling) started at the highest cost - then groups like this committee came along and said that things were unacceptable and improvements were required of the original system. Then gradually the new systems costs come down (over 6-7 years). When inventors and other people see which way things were going, new technologies begin to be applied which reduce the costs of the new system even further, e.g. mirco-composters. In the UK, in policy terms, the question was how to make it quite clear to the private sector that the future 10-15 years was towards organic waste management systems, away from incineration and that they must think about it and take a long-term view. In response to a query he clarified that the above were not predictions, but were tendencies - the political tendency was there and the EU Commission was gradually moving, under environmental pressure in the same direction however. The UK tended to be the last to move. It was clear to him though that progressive policies favoured organic waste management.

(Q2) In Newcastle, �110,000.00 a year has been set aside within the current contract to invest in recycling and other alternatives. This is out of a budget quoted between "70 and 100 million pounds depending on contract duration". Would you like to comment on this percentage and what the results might be?

Robin Murray said that the percentage in question was absurd and that it was obvious the City Council regarded 'recycling' as a marginal concept. Recycling should not have been costed as an 'add on'. Most Councils do recycling to the point where it covers costs (a bit of paper etc). To go further requires a major investment with a 5-7 years transition period and it is necessary to finance these early stages mainly through working capital. However, if you look at it not as an 'add on' but as a systems cost, you can sometimes cut the cost of your residual stream (by taking out organics) and then by reviewing bits of the old system which are high cost. He emphasised that things can only be achieved with the support of a political leader and a senior officer who can think through waste disposal strategy in the new terms.

(Q3) Do you think that the waste strategy 2000 will lead to increases in the incineration of waste? Is this inevitable?

Robin Murray replied 'yes' at the moment he did think that. There were very few Disposal Authorities or Unitary Authorities who were not trying to press for incineration - some were starting to get a bit nervous and were looking towards Pyrolysis and gasification and the waste sector was also getting nervous about all of these revelations. He quoted Essex who had (with much local support) developed detailed plans for recycling and still the County was locked into a determination to try and push through an incineration 20 year long contract.

He suggested that two things needed to happen:-

1. There must be a change in financing - if change was to take place there needed to be transitional funding offered to the people who count.

2. There was a need to transform the system of incentives which gave Disposal Authorities and Waste Companies, to some extent, an interest in the new recycling economy which at present they didn't have.

He confirmed the Chair's query that planning permissions for incinerators were getting more difficult to obtain - Michael Meacher had recently said we must look at alternatives.

Bob Stewart asked if Newcastle would be taking a risk if they went down this recycling line, to which Robin Murray said 'no'. There were great changes taking place in relation to the anti-incinerator lobby - now sixteen or seventeen anti-incinerator campaign groups and civil servants were beginning to waiver and this gave the basis for a move forward. He emphasised that it was essential to take some Councillors forward supporting your plan - then the plan needed to be costed - then go to Michael Meacher; then put in a bid to be processed; call for support for the transitional period. He suggested that the first bidder often got the worm.

(Q4) The countries that recycle a substantial fraction of waste also incinerate waste. Are there any reasons why the UK should not do the same?

Robin Murray said that if you look at some of these countries, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany and see what they've done - what we find is most have difficulties with landfill (e.g. high water table/high mountains) so there answer to the 'old' problem was to build incinerators. The Scandinavians did it in a progressive way by adding heat and power, so that the whole of Copenhagen was dependent on waste for heat (progressive in the 1980s). When the new factors were realised they switched over and realised that they must have recycling, but nevertheless they have huge inherited structure of incinerators, so they have had to focus on the areas of the waste stream that the municipal incinerators could spare (e.g. Copenhagen - glass recycling/industrial and commercial waste). Overall he suggested that there was a move to recycling, but also towards measures to cope with the shortage of waste for incinerators.

(Q5) What role could Waste Management play in increasing employment opportunities? (Jo Bourne)

Robin Murray indicated that this was where recycling and composting was so very strong, because it was replete with labour. His view was that if you had recycling rates and the labour intensity of the operation, you'd have the lowest rates with lowest labour and the more labour, the higher the rate - there was a relationship however between systems as follows:-

1. Put all emphasis on the 'soft side' - that is spending money on advising householders, spending time with them - getting collection vehicles to drive slowly down streets to talk to people and generate commitment - develop new management information systems etc (green collar work) and this was highly labour intensive.

2. If large recycling plants or a aerobic digesters or big incinerators were built this would create some labour, but would be substantially less labour intensive and the break point was that this was a local employment opportunity.

(Q6) Newcastle City Council has, in April 2001, signed a 20-year contract with SITA, which is said to be "very flexible". How flexible and in what ways does it need to be, to be a sustainable forward-looking strategy? How could this committee influence Councillors?

Robin Murray said that it was essential to think your way around the barriers "the giants on the path" - there was always a way around, although the task could be very hard. He called the task "constructing, progressive coalitions". He said that SITA were definitely a barrier in this situation and were not good at recycling. It was always a question of cash and how much it would cost to buy them out and that this element needed to be fed into the overall financial strategy. He commented that SITA were becoming much more open - they didn't want to build more incinerators. However it was essential that the committee went forward with an over-plan.

(Q7) BAN Waste would like to see Newcastle turn round from its present position of 3.2% recycling to be at the forefront. What do we have to do to help this happen?

The Chair added that in a previous session Keith Collins had recommended that the committee should not be over-ambitious and should go for a slogan of "cut waste in half" where as Newcastle go for "zero waste" was now being recommended. Which slogan would be right to motivate people in Newcastle?

Robin Murray said that in his experience marketing was absolutely key and that careful consideration needed to be given to social marketing and because of its importance professional advice should be drawn in. Zero waste was indeed a long-term goal say by 2200 with intermediate stages along the way, but you do need to package this with professional advice.

(Q8) The Chair referred to the express need for contestable auditing and the worry of groups being captured. Do you think that a group set up to run a campaign for a particular strategy could be the one that exercised that function or would it be captured by the providers?

Robin Murray referred to communities in the USA who had been bought off - that was simply a trade-off. What had to happen was that the group plus some expert environmentalists (to inform, discussion/decisions) could comprise a board/trust. The local people have an interest in having safe arrangements/facilities. The local people will not need to be paid money, but to receive resources to enable them to carry out the function without interfering too much with their lives. The actual work of auditing could be sub-contracted out to another body that could be trusted (e.g. local University).

(Q9) Bob Stewart raised the question of what we do with residue and indicated that mention had been made to neutralising and treating the toxic waste - was this possible and could more be said about it?

In response Robin Murray showed pictures of a waste plant in Milan and explained the process involved in dealing with residual waste. He suggested that there should be minimal labour in this area and that they should be well protected from the dangerous residual materials. What was produced as a by-product would not go on your garden, but it was a realistic process. Costs were mainly quoted at �10 to �30 per tonne to do this and it was a very common system both in Germany and in Austria.

Robin Murray then referred to Halifax Nova Scotia which should be regarded as Newcastle's twin town, because there they said no to landfill and the Council and the citizens worked together and produced a three-stream system (with separated organic collections). The citizens did not want untreated waste in their landfill so they had a NBT system incorporated and within 5 years they got up to 60% diversion with the NBT dealing with the residual.

The Chair indicated that at the meeting with SITA next week, some of these issues would be raised.

At this point the Chair thanked Robin Murray for his presentation which had given many issues for further consideration.