The Environment Agency (EA) published its guidance document, ‘Non-hazardous and inert waste: appropriate measures for permitted waste facilities’, on 12th July 2021. The publication had been keenly anticipated since it was consulted on between September and November 2020. This article explains the main changes introduced by the guidance and what waste site operators can do to prepare for its impacts and achieve compliance.
The guidance sets out what the EA expects from waste sites with regards to emissions monitoring and operational procedures to reduce their impact on the environment and people. It is broad in both reach and scope:
- It applies both to new and existing permitted waste management facilities in England that store, treat or transfer non-hazardous and inert wastes, including household waste recycling centres (HWRCs), waste transfer stations and treatment facilities.
- It covers all aspects of waste acceptance, storage, treatment and procedures applicable to waste sites.
It includes numerous changes that will affect waste site design and operations, some of which will provoke more head-scratching from waste site operators than others.
The biggest change brought in by the guidance is the new requirement that waste activities that are likely to cause significant pollution must take place inside an enclosed building – unless the site operator can demonstrate, by way of a risk assessment, that alternative methods are sufficient to manage emissions.
This is more reasonable and operationally viable requirement than the consultation draft, which would have required waste operations to take place within enclosed buildings by default – a stipulation that provoked significant concern among respondents to the consultation from the waste industry. However, the types of alternative measures which will be acceptable, what is meant by ‘significant pollution’ and what greater consideration must be given to sensitive receptors remain undefined. If the definitions are restrictive, it might yet result in something approaching a default assumption that waste operations take place indoors.
The EA recognises that there are likely to be costs associated with complying with the new guidance. Some may arise from implementing appropriate measures specified in this guidance. However, most costs are likely to be incurred when complying with the guidance requires significant infrastructure changes. The EA recognises that in some cases the costs may be disproportionate to the environmental benefit, and in such instances the operator may be able to apply for a derogation.
Whilst it is unclear how, or to what extent, the EA will allow derogations, it could be of help to operators with little capital. However, they will need to justify why the infrastructure amendments are disproportionately expensive and demonstrate that alternative procedures will be used to minimise their site’s impact on its local receptors.
There are two deadlines that operators need to have in mind, by which they need to have assessed their sites and ensured compliance with the new guidance.
By August 2022, low-cost improvements must be in place. These include the implementation or revision of:
- Management systems;
- Waste acceptance procedures; and
- Systems and schedules to monitor emissions.
By August 2024, any improvements that require capital investment must be completed. These include the installation of:
- New buildings or shelters;
- Abatement and other measures to ensure building compliance; and
- Significant emissions monitoring equipment.
However, new installations must comply with the guidance when operations commence. This includes cases where new or replacement plant is installed at existing facilities, so operators will need to factor this in when they consider new investments.
The EA has placed a revised risk assessment at the centre of the new guidance, which is the principal means by which to determine if a site requires additional measures in order to bring it into compliance. If the risk assessment identifies that emissions from the site will have an impact on the local environment or people, site operators must be able to demonstrate that they have ‘appropriate’ measures in place that are equally effective as, or better than, enclosure within a building, at minimising emissions of pollutants, such as airborne particulates (dust), litter and odour.
Examples of measures that could help achieve this standard include:
- Implementation and adherence to a written management system, comprising various emissions monitoring and management plans for emissions identified (e.g., dust management plan, odour management plan etc.);
- Demonstration of a contingency plan in the event of an accident or emergency, including prevention of accidental emissions;
- Ensuring staff are trained and competent in identifying and classifying waste and the requirements of the management system; and
- Robust emissions control and monitoring procedures.
What’s the plan?
Though the updated guidance gives waste site operators plenty to ponder, to achieve compliance within the timeframes prescribed by the EA, sites will need to begin to review their compliance as soon as possible. If significant changes are required, they may take months, or even years, to implement.
In the short term, operators should take time to familiarise themselves with the new guidance and use it to inform a review of their risk assessment. This will enable operators to identify emissions, existing and new receptors and any additional controls that may be required to manage the risks and reduce their impact.
From this risk assessment, sites should then look to establish a monitoring programme for the identified emissions that may be released from their operations. Then, if required, they should develop a management plan for the emissions within their management system. This management plan should identify the baseline emissions, monitoring regime and the mitigation methods to be deployed, as well as identifying if the emission has previously been or is likely to become an issue, or if complaints have been received.
Whilst complying with the new guidance will involve additional work and may require financial investment for waste site operators, ultimately, implementing the changes will lead to a reduced environmental impact of their operations and the waste sector as a whole, which will help make waste sites better neighbours and can only be a positive change in the longer-term.