Environment Agency confirms leaf litter is waste

leaf in gutter

The Environment Agency (EA) has released a statement and further FAQs outlining that leaves collected from untreated street sweepings are classed as waste code 20 03 03 (the same as litter) and therefore cannot be composted or spread on land.

The statement released by the Environment Agency last week, said: ‘Due to the potential for contamination our current guidance is that dedicated street cleansing collections of untreated leaf litter should not be used as a feedstock for composting or used as a feedstock to produce quality compost.’

The FAQs follow on from the EA’s Autumn Leaf Litter Composting Trial 2011-2012 which looked at four Welsh local authorities’ data on their untreated street sweepings and evaluated whether leaf litter collected in the period between September and December 2011 was suitable for composting.

The trials were taken as part of the EA’s ‘review’ into its position on leaf litter treatment and its stance that untreated leaf litter is not suitable for composting.

According to the EA, the outcomes of the trial indicated a ‘precautionary approach’ to composting leaves was needed, due to the presence of ‘contaminants’ such as nickel, copper, chromium, zinc and hydrocarbons.

As such, its previous guidance on the management of street sweepings (released in May of this year), which says that untreated leaf litter cannot be composted, remains unchanged.

The decision has concerned many LAs that currently compost their leaf litter, as they will now be obliged to send their leaf fall to landfill or mechanical biological treatment. At the LARAC Conference yesterday (18 October), a question from the floor in response to a presentation by WRAP’s organics specialist Nina Sweet indicated many councils fear this will negatively impact on their recycling rates.

“Adverse effect” of sending leaf litter to landfill

Speaking to Resource, a spokesperson for LARAC said: “LARAC members have expressed concern over the EA's updated statement, especially the timing of its release as leaf collection operations begin in earnest, and the need to quickly find alternative disposal or processing arrangements at short notice.

“There is potential for this to have significant impact on authority recycling performance, as well as the adverse effect on having to send additional waste to landfill, which will lead to significantly higher costs for waste disposal authorities.

“LARAC is currently in the process of gathering more detailed information from its members on the effects this will have for them, in order to fully understand the implications. A number of member authorities have expressed willingness to support the Environment Agency in undertaking further more detailed and in-depth trials, which LARAC will fully support.”

However, speaking in issue 62 of Resource, Matt Bunting, General Manager of waste recovery and recycling equipment firm, CD Enviro, commentd: “What these local authorities are failing to recognise is the benefits that are to be gained through effective treatment/recycling of street sweepings and gully emptyings. By investing in the correct recycling equipment, local authorities, or their waste management sub-contractors, can take action to avoid escalating disposal costs as landfill tax is set to rise.”

Bunting highlighted the recent installation of a recycling plant in Wolverhampton, West Midlands, that can accept this kind of waste and reportedly helps divert 300,000 tonnes of waste from landfill, saving £10 million over seven years and boosting recycling rates by around three per cent.

Leaf litter "does not post unacceptable risk"

Further trials into leaf litter compostability are now being led by the Association for Organics Recycling (AfOR). It is understood that 12 local authorities have registered interest in the trials.

Jeremy JacobsJeremy Jacobs, Managing Director at AfOR, said: “AfOR are keen to be closely involved in trials with a number of local authorities and compost operators in order that we are able to collate evidence to demonstrate that composting leaf litter in conjunction with green waste or green and food wastes does not pose an unacceptable risk in respect to use of the resultant output, when it is applied to land as a soil amendment.

“There are significant volumes of leaf litter currently undergoing biological treatment and subsequent beneficial use and we should endeavour to ensure that this continues to be the case in the future, rather than landfill this material which we know causes significant environmental pollution through methane emissions.

“AfOR’s role is to provide the evidence to the regulator about the quality of the output from composting leaf litter; we await the results of the forthcoming trials with interest.”

AfOR is also currently running a poll on its website asking people whether they believe the ban on leaf litter composting is proportionate to the risk posed.

Local authorities interested in taking part are asked to contact AfOR.