August 18, 2005 | General


BioCycle August 2005, Vol. 46, No. 8, p. 56
Changes made 12 hours before July 1 deadline without consultation undermine confidence in the UK’s regulatory process.

THE Composting Association in the United Kingdom reacted with “disbelief” to the eleventh hour U-turn in the implementation of the Waste Management Licensing Exemption Regulations for composting in England and Wales effective July 1, 2005. Leaders of the Association rated the last minute changes as obstructive, noting that the ongoing uncertainty undermines strategic investment in composting infrastructure required to meet landfill diversion targets.
The new regulations, which covered composting, sewage treatment/ storage, reclamation and spreading industrial waste on land, had taken many years to prepare. Exemptions enable small-scale operations to operate without incurring the costs of full waste management licenses while ensuring protection of the environment. Through this system, thousands of tons of material have been composted over the past few years.
Revisions to these rules were viewed as necessary to provide proportionate regulation and readdress current inequalities, notes the Association. “The costs of obtaining and complying with a waste management license run into many thousands of pounds a year.” Under the current system, some operators of licensed sites have had their businesses undermined by unlicensed and/or license-exempt operators running sites according to poor environmental standards. Historically, regulators have not had the resources to monitor and regulate these sites fully. Similarly, small-scale community groups have been unduly penalized and prevented from selling their compost.
Following the announcement of the new regulations in March, local authorities and composting companies across England and Wales have been developing strategies and facilities based on these announced rules. However, just 12 hours before the new regulations were due to come into force, DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) announced it was to withdraw the composting paragraph from the regulation.
In a July 1 press release, DEFRA noted that amendments had been made to allow composting groups to apply for an exemption to the waste management license, allowing them to transport waste material to one site to be composted, and then to another for use – the so-called “import/export” criteria. However, Local Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw – explaining why DEFRA had changed its mind – said there was a “real need” for further assessment of the environmental impact of composting. Until these assessments are complete, the import/export criteria in the current composting exemption to the Waste Management Licensing Regulations 1994 will continue to apply. Noted Bradshaw in the press release: “Increasing the amount of organic waste composted is one of our key objectives; as such we want to encourage the growth of the community composting sector. Nevertheless, composting does pose a risk to the environment and human health. We have therefore decided to reconsider this exemption for composting to ensure that the revised controls reduce this risk, whilst fulfilling our aim of encouraging composting.”
Under the old (current) exemptions, composting was defined to include “any other biological transformation process that results in materials which may be spread on land for the benefit of agriculture or ecological improvement” (somewhat ambiguous). There was an “import/export ban,” i.e., any compost produced must be used on the site it is produced; there was no definition of what can/can’t be composted other than “biodegradable waste;” and no application process other than simple (free) notification to the relevant authority. The regulations and accompanying guidance contradict each other. The regulations state 1,000 m3 can be on site at any one time; the guidance states 1,000 m3 per year.
The new exemptions as drafted – and reported in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of the UK Association’s Composting News – specified what type of materials could be composted and under what conditions; allowed composters to “export,” i.e., sell compost; provided full definitions of composting (the autothermic and thermophilic biological decomposition and stabilization of biodegradable waste under controlled conditions that are aerobic or anaerobic and result in a stable sanitized material that can be applied to land for the benefit of agriculture or ecological improvement); clarified limits (400 metric tons at any one time); provided legislative backing to regulators along with resources; and introduced a minimum level of 5 metric tons for when exemptions are needed and set new fee brackets.
Dr. Jane Gilbert, Chief Executive of the Composting Association, reflected the frustrations of the composting industry saying: “This U-turn is another example of how difficult it is for the composting industry to plan strategic investments running into millions of pounds when goal posts are being moved continually. Composters across England and Wales have been working with local authorities to help them meet their Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme targets on the basis that the legislation had been agreed. This announcement has once again left the industry and stakeholders in a state of confusion.”
Continued Gilbert: “The composting industry has always been open and keen to enter into constructive dialogue with government in order to help it meet its legal and environmental obligations. The Association understands that the latest U-turn has been introduced because very small-scale community composters were being disproportionately overcharged. This should have been addressed during the consultations not 12 hours before the change over.”
Ironically, by making these changes, the costs to the small-scale composter seem likely to double. Under the existing composting exemption, all compost must be used on-site and a landspreading exemption is required; however the cost of a landspreading exemption is £546.
The impacts of this decision are wide ranging and the Composting Association is seeking an urgent meeting with the Minister and opposition parties to discuss this and many other regulatory issues. During these discussions, the Association will continue to stress the need for a level playing field in which commercial, community, and on-farm composting can continue to thrive while helping meet strategic sustainable goals. The Composting Association is working with its members and the Community Composting Network to develop a mechanism to provide a timely resolution, which based on a level playing field, enables composting exemptions to succeed. – N.G.
The UK Composting Association ( has over 700 members including compost producers, local authorities, consultants, technology suppliers and academics. It will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in August 2005. The Association can be e-mailed at

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