Dealing with growing volumes of hazardous waste

Written by: Editorial staff | Published:
The cost of disposing of and processes hazardous materials ranges from £170 to more than £1,000 per tonne

Jason Houghton, Amey’s account director for commercial waste, asks what the constraints and costs of dealing with growing volumes of hazardous household waste are, and whether the answer is better education for residents or manufacturers taking more responsibility.

Every day the household waste recycling centres managed by Amey are faced with a mountain of materials being dropped off by householders – classified as hazardous but, to the average resident, just something to be thrown away.

And that’s partly where the issue lies. Society has changed. The goods we consume, and the way we consume them, has changed. We all use a variety of small, electronic gadgets housing different battery types.

Increasing numbers of chemically based household products, which clean every part of our homes, are lined up on supermarket shelves and we are faced with a range of products to look after our cars and keep our gardens blooming.

Coupled with that, we have steadily become a throw-away society; indeed, the volume of hazardous waste received at Amey’s centres has been on the increase since 2013. But does the average resident really understand or see these items as hazardous and know how to deal with them as such?

"Many centres are based on sites designed a few decades ago, when they housed only a handful of disposal bins"

Household waste recycling centres should, of course, be the correct destination for such materials coming from households. But that in itself isn’t as simple as it sounds. Many centres are based on sites that were designed a few decades ago, when they housed only a handful of disposal bins.

Today, with ever increasing demands on improving recycling rates and environmental performance alongside safety requirements, these centres have led the way in segregating materials, often being the cornerstone to any local authority strategy to increase reuse, recycling and recovery of household waste.

Over the years, the volume of waste collected has increased ­- as has the number of wastes that are now separately collected, now totalling over 25 different types. This has put increasing demands on the layout and space of Household Waste Recycling Centres, many of which still stand on their originally sized footprint. With council budget constraints, the cost of improving or delivering new sites proves difficult.

Practical solutions

And it is here we should perhaps look at the root of the situation. What can be done to support the management of, and reduce the costs involved in, hazardous household waste disposal?

If we take a look at one of the centres managed by Amey in Northamptonshire, we get an overview of the range of items to be dealt with. An average recycling centre in 2016 /17 received more than two tonnes of aerosols, 38 tonnes of paint and 12 tonnes of automobile oil.

But that’s the tip of the volume iceberg – there were also more than 101 tonnes of fridge freezers or cold appliances and 50 tonnes of display equipment (TVs and monitors), while small domestic appliances added another 219 tonnes.

Each type of hazardous material collected at a Household Waste Recycling Centre needs to be stored safely, without causing detriment to the environment or human health. Different types of hazardous materials need to be properly segregated from each other and stored in appropriate containers and at a safe distance from other hazardous materials.

For example, paint waste should be stacked carefully in stillages with covers that protect the contents from the weather; household chemicals stored in weatherproof containers or chemsafes; oils stored safely in bunded tanks; fluorescent lamps, gas discharge lamps and other WEEE equipment that contains mercury must be kept undercover in weatherproof containers at all times.

All hazardous waste should also be stored on impermeable surfaces and in a way that avoids the risk of spilling or contaminating nearby drains or sewers.

This comes at a cost, and it’s a cost which waste operators and local authorities are left to bear. Whether this lies in safety training to ensure staff understand how to safely handle, store and consign these types of materials or upgrading constrained sites, it is a burden to be borne at a local operating level.

"This comes at a cost, and it's a cost which waste operators and local authorities are left to bear"

As the cost of disposing of and processes hazardous materials grows – ranging from £170 to more than £1,000 per tonne, depending on the material – it’s time we looked at responsibility for such costs.

Within the waste industry itself, we are getting smarter at managing materials. Bespoke recycling plants are coming online for items such as batteries and aerosols, while WEEE schemes are well-established. But is it time to look more closely at putting financial responsibility for hazardous household waste back to the manufacturers that produced it?

Corporate social responsibility programmes are seeing producer responsibility take hold in areas such as food waste and plastics. Our sector, through its various forums and networks, needs to also consider what we can do to bring this into play in the hazardous waste arena. How can we combine responsibility and commercial aspects to put this on the agenda for more manufacturers and suppliers?

Responsibility on both sides

Until residents understand the dangers of the materials they throw away, they won’t appreciate the need to dispose of it safely. Simply throwing away a battery in your black bag waste or wheelie bin can have unintended consequences, including fire risk.

Across Amey we run a range of community education programmes to continue emphasising the importance of using the correct bin or local Household Waste Recycling Centre. The ethos of reduce, reuse, recycle is embedded across this – but more needs to be done across the industry to ensure residents specifically understand the risks associated with the materials they throw away.

Do they understand which hazardous materials they have in their home, could they have bought safer alternatives (such as water- rather than oil-based) and do they buy only the amount of material needed for the job?

Amey, as with others, also supports the national RePaint programme through six of its Cambridgeshire centres. Backed by Dulux, the scheme prevents surplus, usable paint from entering the waste stream and recycles it for community group use.

Ultimately manufacturers, local authorities and residents all need to share responsibility for hazardous household waste. The argument for shared responsibility across waste and recycling in general was also put forward by the think-tank Green Alliance earlier this year when it added its voice to calls for the introduction of extended producer responsibility to boost recycling in England.

Green Alliance called for policy to ensure “a fair distribution of rights and responsibilities across all groups who participate in the materials recovery process”, while adding no one group should shoulder an unfair share of the burden.

The Green Alliance added that the “only certain thing is that hard-pressed councils are having to pick up an unfair share of the bill, despite their obvious financial constraints. But they have no power to bring down the costs.”

There are, of course, many practicalities that need to be considered when looking at producer responsibility and education programmes. Amey will continue to debate these through its involvement in Business in the Community’s Circular Economy Taskforce. And by considering them, industry can aim to reduce the cost of hazardous household waste disposal to the public purse.

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