Dealing with residual waste

Question: "What can be done with the 40% residual waste once we reach recycling levels of 60%?"

Synopsis: This report explains how Surrey can deal with its waste by using proven techniques that are flexible, sustainable and compliant with the latest EC Directives.

NB - The information and references contained in this report reflect the situation at date of production. This is a rapidly changing topic, so we advise that a check is made for later issues or subsequent legislation to ensure current status.

What do the latest EC Directives require?
The Solution: Dealing with residual waste and complying with the latest EU Directives
Vision for zero waste
Key facts about pre-treatment facilities (Mechanical Biological Treatment)


It is now increasingly accepted that with good recycling and composting procedures in place, it is realistic to expect recycling levels of at least 60% to be achieved. Here are a few examples from around the world which illustrate that it can be done:

It is frequently suggested that achieving recycling levels (or diversion rates) of 60% invites the question of how the remaining 40% should be disposed of. The existence of this 40% residual waste is frequently used as an argument for the need for incineration because it is claimed that incineration is preferable to hazardous landfill.

What do the latest EC Directives require?

People who live near to many landfill sites have to put up with pungent odours, greenhouse gases such as methane, vermin and leachate/groundwater problems. These are the problems associated with non-inert landfill which arise because of the food waste and other organic material going into the landfill (ie. kitchen and green waste which are also known as putrescibles). In addition to this, toxic materials, such as paint and used batteries, also cause problems in a landfill site.

Two sets of targets are driving local authorities to devise new strategies for dealing with their waste:

  1. The UK is bound by the EC Landfill Directive (99/31/EC) which sets mandatory targets to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill by 25 % by 2010, 50 % by 2013, and 65 % by 2020.
  2. The UK Government has set targets for local authorities to double their recycling and composting rates by 2003 and for the country as a whole to reach 25 % by 2005, 30 % by 2010, and 33 % by 2015. These targets were laid down in the ‘Guidance on Municipal Waste Management Strategies’ (March 2001) and in the National Waste Strategy 2000 (May 2000).

In addition to this Article 6(a) of the Landfill Directive states that all waste going to landfill must be pre-treated before disposal. Local authorities will be given permits for the amount of material they are allowed to landfill. Penalties will be introduced for local authorities that fail to comply. There are a number of other waste-related EC directives looming on the horizon, but the Landfill Directive is providing the main driving force for change right now.

The UK Government targets go beyond the EC Landfill Directive as they tackle more that just biodegradable waste. We believe that local authorities should aim to exceed the UK targets in a way that contributes to real progress towards a more environmentally acceptable waste strategy rather than a rushed switch from one unacceptable approach to another that is low in the waste hierarchy.

The Solution: Dealing with residual waste and complying with the latest EU Directives

Within Surrey there are many uncertainties regarding the amount and composition of any residual waste arising in future years. In addition to the strong public opposition and environmental issues, incineration is an inflexible technique for waste disposal. Once an incinerator has been built there will be strong pressure from economic interests to keep it operational and profitable for the next 25 years. The incentive to recycle will also be diminished.

Surrey needs a framework to allow the county to respond quickly to changes in the composition of waste arising and to comply with new legislation. For example, there has been discussion in Europe of an incinerator tax and of a requirement for bio-waste collections. We need an approach that has low capital costs and is flexible, being quick to bring on-line or put on hold.

The solution to these problems is now being tried and tested in many countries. It relies upon sorting and cleaning the waste stream as follows:

  1. source separation (ie. paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, cans, textiles, organic waste distinguishing kitchen waste and green waste)
  2. kerbside collection of dry recyclables, organic waste and un-recyclable residual waste
  3. centralised composting facilities for handling organic waste producing compost that can be sold
  4. stabilise residual waste with a pre-treatment facility, then send it to inert landfill
  5. clean the residual waste by promoting and improving facilities at Civic Amenity sites for hazardous household waste (eg. acid, anti-freeze, paint, batteries, propane tanks, pesticides and herbicides). [Some CA sites in Surrey already provide facilities for oil, car batteries and corrosive materials].

The first priority is to tackle organic waste, which makes up 30 to 60% of household waste. There has been no analysis of the composition of the municipal waste stream in Surrey, but Surrey County Council have assumed that it comprises of 60 % organic waste. Whilst home composting has a part to play in waste minimisation, by itself it will never achieve the levels of diversion that doorstep food waste collections can achieve. This is recognised in the EU working document on a future Bio Waste Directive, where separate bio-waste collections are proposed for all cities, towns and villages with more than 2,000 inhabitants. This EU directive is intended to complement the Landfill Directive. It will give residents an easy way of dealing with their food waste.

Organic waste would be collected on a regular basis and taken to a network of sealed industrial composting facilities (ie. in-vessel composting). As a result of the foot and mouth outbreak there are currently restrictions in the UK on the use of compost derived from kitchen waste. However, when the EU Animal By-Products Regulation comes into force in Spring 2002 it will be possible to use properly composted mixed waste (ie. green waste and kitchen waste) on all land except pasture land.

Residual waste would be collected and taken to a pre-treatment facility (ie. Mechanical Biological Treatment, MBT). This comprises of a mechanical shredding/sorting process using filters, magnets and electrical currents to remove the maximum amount of recyclable material. The remainder is treated biologically (ie. composted) to make it inactive. The amount of material that comes out of this process is significantly reduced and it is relatively inert, so it can be safely sent to landfill. The landfill capacity that is currently available in Surrey needs to be used wisely.

One big advantage of MBT is that the facility can be designed in a modular way to provide ultimate flexibility. As the residual waste stream is reduced the plant can be converted to in-vessel composting units for separated organics.

Vision for zero waste

Although this report focuses on a short to medium term target of 60% recycling and composting, this should be seen as no more than a milestone along to the path to ever-improved rates of diversion from landfill, incineration and other disposal options. Surrey’s goal should be to get closer and closer to the aspirational target of sending nothing to disposal facilities (ie. zero waste). Zero waste aims to ensure that all products are made from materials which can either be repaired, re-used or recycled. This means that at the end of their life there is no residual waste to be disposed of. What we now call "waste" should instead be regarded as a mixture of resources to be used again to their full potential, not as something to be thrown away (ie. more efficient use of resources). ‘Zero waste’ is a similar concept to ‘zero accidents’ or ‘zero defects’ in manufacturing. An ambitious target encourages new levels of innovation and efficiency.

The term ‘zero’ should not be viewed as an absolute figure, but as a target to strive for. We recognise that it may take a long time to achieve this and that we need an approach for dealing with waste arising in the mean time. However, the objective brings a clear focus to a Waste Strategy and offers the helpful discipline that short and medium term proposals should be compatible with longer-term aspirations. Zero waste programmes are now unfolding in many countries, and are being pioneered in America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Bath and North East Somerset Council announced in December 2001 that they have adopted a long-term vision of zero waste in their waste strategy. Visit their web site ( or contact Richard Robertson, the Waste Services Manager, on 01225-394157, email:

Zero waste thinking is becoming increasingly mainstream in the UK. At Margaret Beckett’s Waste Summit held in November 2001 the Environment Agency stated their vision of "A long-term goal of zero waste production". More recently a DEFRA spokesman stated that, "[Zero waste] is very much the direction the Government would like waste management to go. The top priorities in the Government's strategy are to ensure that the production of waste is minimised and that the scope for the re-use and recycling of waste that is produced is maximised."

Key facts about pre-treatment facilities (Mechanical Biological Treatment)

  1. MBT does not generate marketable compost, but the volume of residue going into landfill is reduced by 30 to 40%. Assuming 40% residual waste going in this means we can divert up to 75 % from landfill.
  2. MBT is widely used in Austria and Germany as an acceptable alternative to incineration for municipal waste. See Environmental Data Services Ltd (ENDS) Environment Daily, 5 October 2000 (
  3. MBT systems are also used extensively across Belgium, Italy and Canada.
  4. MBT facilities are relatively cheap to build compared with incineration due to their simplicity. For example, an MBT plant in Milan with a capacity of 600,000 tonnes per annum was built rapidly in 1997 with the initial investment of £20 million equipment being depreciated over 5 years. A medium sized incinerator with a throughput of 400,000 tonnes per annum typically requires an initial capital investment of approximately £100 million.
  5. Here in the UK Hertfordshire's District and County Councils announced in July 2001 that they are carrying out an assessment of MBT and that they will not be pursuing incineration.
  6. In April 2002 there was an EU Workshop on Biological treatment of biodegradable waste which aimed to help EU member states share knowledge on this technique within the context of current EU legislation.
  7. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have both given their endorsement to MBT as a technique for treating residual waste.
  8. Robin Murray, an independent consultant from Ecologika, published a book in March 2002 entitled "Zero waste" (ISBN 1 903907 01 2) which supports MBT.
  9. The National Waste Strategy 2000 mentions MBT only briefly and highlights issues of pollution control found in some of the plants in Austria and Germany. Like all mixed waste treatment facilities they need to operate to high health and safety standards, with bio-filters to reduce odours, bioaerosols, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  10. MBT plants such as the Milan facility neutralise the organics in the waste stream and reduce the fermentability of the waste by at least 90% of the original level.
  11. The current draft of the EU "Bio Waste Directive" suggests that MBT is preferable to burning bio-waste to generate energy. Indications from Brussels suggest that this directive will be signed in 2004, so the first deadline for implementation will be 2007 (this will apply to all towns with a population over 100,000).The full reference for the EU "Bio Waste Directive" is: European Commission, 12 February 2001, ‘Working Document - Biological Treatment of Biological Waste - 2nd draft’, 12/2, CEC.
    Reference: DG ENV.A.2/LM/biowaste/2nd draft 12 February 2001. Also see the EU web site at
  12. The current draft of the EU Bio Waste Directive also makes it clear that those materials that have undergone MBT and achieved the limit values on fermentability, will no longer be considered as ‘biodegradable’ and hence will be regarded as contributing to the diversion targets stated in Article 5 of the Landfill Directive.


This report shows that we can deal with residual waste in an environmentally acceptable way. Techniques similar to those described in this report have been used successfully in many countries, including Nova Scotia, Canada. Grass Roots Recycling Network has produced a short 20 minute video called "On the road to zero waste, part 1". Copies of this video are available from GAIN in return for a donation of £5.

Government has emphasised the importance of partnerships in producing a Joint Municipal Waste Strategy. We believe that these partnerships must include local businesses, schools and local community groups at the earliest opportunity. Waste contractors also have their part to play. No single player in isolation can achieve either the Government’s targets or the public’s aspirations.

Dr Gev Eduljee, Technical Director of SITA recently said that, "To remain a leading waste management company, SITA must remain proactive in its approach to technical competence and environmental management". John Scanlon, General Manager for Surrey Waste Management (SWM), announced at a GAIN public meeting on 12 April that "SWM are currently considering how to deal with residual waste". There is also a need for SWM to change it’s contract with Surrey County Council in light of new Government guidelines and EU legislation.

The time for change is now, and involvement of the community is a crucial ingredient for success. We sense there is an enormous will to move forward constructively from all parties: we have heard statements from County Councillors that they really are listening to resident’s concerns about waste; District/Borough Councils have taken great strides to improve recycling rates in their area; SWM have talked of their readiness to revise the contract and increase the reliance on recycling/composting in achieving targets; and finally the public are becoming increasingly aware of waste issues. Together we can move forward with a greater sense of community responsibility. We believe the public want this kind of partnership and are looking to their local authority for strong political will, leadership and imaginative approaches using techniques that are flexible and sustainable.

This report was produced and distributed by GAIN
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