Will new EA regulations restrict growth and add bureaucracy to the hazardous waste sector?

Written by: Jonathan Harris | Published:
Grundon's High Temperature Incinerator

Regulatory change is on the horizon in the hazardous waste sector.

Like most of our peers, we want to make sure that new measures are introduced for the good of the industry and not just change for change's sake.

Following its recent consultation on ‘appropriate measures for permitted facilities that transfer or treat healthcare wastes’, the Environment Agency (EA) will now start its formal consultation on potential changes for premises that accept hazardous waste.

Grundon Waste Management is in support of the Environmental Services Association, the Chartered Institution of Waste Management, and other trade associations’ views that an update to the EA’s guidance documents may not bring about the change intended.

This is because of the significant impact on the operation and management of hazardous waste facilities with potentially little environmental impact.

But before we get into that argument we must ask ourselves why the need for these draft documents has arisen in the first place – if indeed it has. I believe it comes out of the issues experienced in the clinical waste market last year, and the ongoing repercussions that have continued throughout this year.

Many will be aware of the issues caused after Healthcare Environmental Services allowed clinical waste to stockpile at its facilities and
then collapsed.

This had significant knock-on effects for many NHS Trusts, immediately requiring alternative collection and disposal routes for their wastes, which inevitably resulted in inefficiencies and elevated costs.

In reacting to the negative fallout the EA has taken it upon itself to be far more prescriptive of the processes for the management and administration of all hazardous wastes, perhaps without due consideration to the outcomes we’re striving to achieve.

While there are many sensible suggestions within the draft documents, in my opinion it’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and I very much hope they will take industry views into consideration before making any decisions.

At the heart of our concern is that the EA seems to want to cross every t and dot every i without regard for the major effects this will have for the clinical and hazardous waste sectors and their customers.

The Waste Treatment Brief operates a tried and tested risk-based approach, where the decisions made are based on the relevant level of risk and in line with the BAT conclusions (Best Available Techniques), which are the most effective techniques we can all employ to prevent or minimise the impact of our activities.

The draft guidance appears to want to gold plate this by adding new requirements and imperatives over and above the existing legislation. Changes that would, I believe, require the consideration of a full regulatory
impact assessment.

By adopting a far more prescriptive approach, with numerous absolute imperative requirements, the EA will potentially tie the clinical and hazardous waste management sectors in knots. With its one-size-fits-all regime it reduces our ability to manage using a proportionate approach based on both risk and scale.

Risk-based approach

Application of the risk-based approach is not, however, a new topic for discussion. In the hazardous waste sector it’s been ongoing for many years now, especially concerning the pre-acceptance requirements for hazardous wastes.

The regulations require a disproportionate amount of sampling and analyses, which take little account of whether a consignment consists of (for example) a few small containers of low-hazard aqueous washings or 28,000-litre delivery of mixed acids.

The experience and knowledge within the industry, the understanding that we have of our customers and the waste they produce, our knowledge of the capabilities within the waste management sector, and ultimately our selection of the most appropriate methods to be employed are not taken into account.

The same proposed prescriptive approach follows through to all subsequent processes: waste acceptance, tracking and storage, mixing and blending, and treatment and transfer.

If we had to meet all the proposed requirements for all containers of every consignment we’d simply stop functioning. The wheels would grind to a halt while we complete all the pre-acceptance and acceptance sampling and analyses, store the samples and document our every decision. We’d then have to track the movement of every container within our operations from point of arrival to final disposal.

While all of the above is possible, the financial implications would be completely disproportionate to any increased benefits to the environment or the health and safety of the stakeholders.

Although my opinion may be slightly biased, I believe the vast majority of those operating hazardous waste facilities are already competent, conscientious, and strive to achieve
the most appropriate outcomes.

Treatment capacity gap

The proposals also have potential implications for our commercial activities and competition between companies. This primarily concerns capacity and contingency.

For example, one of the potential requirements outlined is that each operation must provide a list of all spare parts held in stock and the likely lead-in times for repair if a plant breaks down and affects capacity in the market. This is commercially-sensitive information and how much stock we all hold is surely down to each operator to decide.

While we support each other within the clinical and hazardous waste management sectors we are also competitors, therefore to reveal such details and to have to warn our competition if capacity is likely to drop over a certain period is financially damaging. Watch those prices rise.

In this we are no different to the airline industry where seats rise at a premium during times of high demand and sink back down again when there is plenty
of space.

This was a stick used to beat some of us during the clinical waste debacle last year, yet it is market forces that determine the prices that are set and is how we all survive. We sell our services at the right price – one that allows us to invest in and develop future capacity as opposed toselling at the lowest common denominator and not being able to deliver.

Big changes are also under consideration for the storage of both clinical and hazardous wastes, as the draft guidance states that containerised waste must be stored under cover. However, this is at odds with both BAT reference documents and Health and Safety Executive storage guidance.

The need to provide cover should be risk based and dependent on the type of wastes accepted and the activities performed.

Similarly, for decades the clinical waste sector has safely used articulated lorry trailers for temporarily storing waste (with appropriate controls in place). The new guidance outlaws this, meaning that all wastes must be stored within containers that are inside buildings.

Adding to the above burden, the clinical waste sector is now being told that it must not store waste for more than seven days. The hazardous waste sector is also being told it must not accumulate waste and it should therefore be treated or removed from site within one month of receipt and within a maximum of six months. Once again, this should be risk based and relevant to time scales.

Under appropriate conditions (this doesn’t mean refrigeration of everything) clinical waste can be safely stored for several weeks. The most important aspects are that controls are in place, they’re monitored, and that waste quantities remain within the permit compliance thresholds.

For hazardous wastes, if we are collecting a particular waste that requires a known blend rate then, depending on other variables, it’s very difficult to judge exactly how long this will take. The most important factors are surely that waste is stored safely, in appropriate conditions and in quantities that don’t jeopardise safety.

These must all be assured alongside a guarantee that the operator is either disposing of or gradually consigning the waste to an appropriate disposal facility.

The proposed regulatory changes simply don’t allow for either the clinical or hazardous waste sectors to manage their wastes in accordance with one of the cornerstones of health and safety – using risk assessments and controls commensurate with those risks identified and quantified.

If these requirements are accepted without listening to the clinical and hazardous waste industries it is likely many operators will have to apply for changes to planning permission (more time and cost investment), while others may simply be unable to meet the required infrastructure.

If this happens then the legislation, instead of improving standards, may have the effect of actually damaging both the clinical and hazardous waste sectors by reducing capacities still further.

I hope that during its consultations the EA will take the time to recognise the effort and hard work that the industry has put into our responses.

Waiting for a result

While there are numerous positive aspects within the proposed changes to the guidance documents, I believe they go far too far and are unworkable and cannot be fully justified. Compliance to the letter would result in the wheels grinding to a halt.

We understand that the EA must regulate the industry to ensure it works within the defined standards.

With successive cutbacks to its budget and capabilities to build and maintain suitably-sized teams of competent and experienced officers who can work alongside the industry, the big stick approach may be perceived as its
only tool.

Rather than implementing unworkable regulations I would far rather the EA returns to the way it was when I first started in the industry – when competent officers would regularly visit sites and gain firsthand experience and understanding of our operations and the methods we employed to ensure compliance. We await the EA’s verdict with interest.

Jonathan Harris is technical general manager at Grundon Waste Management

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