Thursday, March 20, 2008

East Riding of Yorkshire Council Review of the Agricultural Composting Industry

Yesterday, (19th March 2008) the East Riding of Yorkshire Council’s (ERYC's) Environment and Transport Overview and Scrutiny committee looked into the agricultural composting industry.

As mover of the original motion I introduced the issue by saying, “Over the past year or so I have met and listened to residents and composters alike, I have seen good practices and bad, and I am of the opinion that composting, if done correctly is a viable option in providing an alternative to conventional fertiliser, which can be environmentally unfriendly in it’s production and has become very expensive. The use of compost has other benefits to the land in breaking up and aerating heavy soils. It is also a positive step in reducing landfill, and as the government targets for recycling increase this is an ideal way of recycling waste. The other benefit is also in providing a source of income through farm diversification.

BUT, if composting is not done correctly, as per the regulations or corners are cut then the resultant smells, and bio-security fears have a detrimental effect on resident’s quality of life. A number of composters are operating under a waste management exemption licence, and this is where it gets even more complicated.

Serious concern has also been expressed over the Bio-security risks connected with the composting of animal by-products on livestock farms in apparent direct contravention of the Animal By-Product Regulations…. which were drawn up to prevent the risk of transmission of serious diseases such as Foot & Mouth, Bird Flu, Swine Fever and BSE.

Resident’s anger has been compounded by the perceived ineffectiveness of a very complicated regulatory process; after all…. despite attempts to improve the situation by the Council departments and two partner agencies there are still the same serious odour issues, and bio-security fears in Howdenshire villages that have been evident for a considerable time”.

The presentations by the ERYC’s officers from Planning, Public Protection and Animal Health, plus officers from the Environment Agency and DEFRA vet demonstrated just how complicated the issue has become. The presentations and subsequent questioning raised many issues and identified serious weaknesses in the regulations governing this industry, especially when a number of composters are operating under waste management exemption licences given by the Environment Agency. This is compounded by planning conditions that are well intended but difficult to enforce.

The committee were informed that at present the Environment Agency does not even have a legal definition of compost within present legislation. At attempt to introduce significant changes to the exemptions was due on 1st July 2005, but DEFRA cancelled the changes 2 days before on 29th June 2005. This would have introduced a list of specific types of wastes that could be composted, the ‘riskier’ the waste type greater the control measures required, lower and tighter quantity limits and fees payable. (I feel if the Government had decided to implement these changes instead of pulling them at the last minute, we would have seen the current bad practices of some Howdenshire composters significantly reduced if not totally eliminated).

The composting exemptions are now being reviewed as part of a wider exemption review, with consultation on the changes due soon which will include draft regulations indicating that composters will require full permits from the Environment Agency. Unfortunately this means the earliest implementation date would be April 2009.

Evidence was also provided showing the greatest number of complaints against composters where concerning composting of animal by-products rather than green waste by a 5:1 ratio.

“I feel during the next year the ERYC is rolling out the brown bin project to collect green garden waste, this waste will be composted down by our partners and made available to farmers to spread on their land. In this respect the council has an opportunity to set the benchmark in composting green waste for others to aspire to.

I felt the committee took the opportunity to look into the agricultural composting industry, if in the future the Council and partner agencies, with new Government legislation, can find a way of ensuring that composters get the processes right and a rigorous and fair regime of regulation is imposed and conformed to… then we could have an agricultural composting industry that is right for the East Riding and sets the benchmark for others to aspire to in this area too”.

The following four recommendations and actions were agreed by the committee:

(1) That the existing regulatory regime of exemptions from waste management licensing for composters, including those which compost animal by-products as a raw material, are a serious cause for concern.

(2) That removing the above exemption would improve the level of control imposed on composters by ensuring that they comply fully with waste management licensing requirements and by bringing them within the scope of the planning regime.

(3) To write to Joan Ruddock MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (State Climate Change, Biodiversity and Waste) requesting that she consider as a matter of urgency the exemptions for composters which include animal by-products as a raw material within the review of the waste management and Environmental Permitting regime.

(4) All unanswered questions the committee members had relating to the composting industry be forwarded to the three agencies for a report to be provided in response.