Nappy recycler Knowaste considering options after planning appeal rejected

Absorbent hygiene product (AHP) recycler Knowaste’s appeal against a planning rejection for a new plant in West London has been rejected, leaving the company assessing its options about whether to continue its search for a new development.

Nappy recycler Knowaste considering options after planning appeal rejected
Knowaste's West Bromwich plant
The North American firm, which has been developing technology to recycle AHPs (nappies, incontinence pads and feminine hygiene products) since the 1990s, submitted plans for the £14-million Hayes 180 development to Hillingdon Council in September 2015, two years after it suddenly closed its original UK AHP recycling facility in West Bromwich.

The company said that its proposed new plant would use its ‘bespoke recycling technology’ to process ‘at least’ 36,000 tonnes of AHP waste a year and create 20 new jobs.

The average woman buys more than 11,000 tampons in her lifetime, while each year around three billion disposable nappies end up in landfills and take up to 500 years to decompose.

However, planning permission for Hayes 180 was rejected by the London Borough of Hillingdon’s planning committee in July 2016 over concerns about potential odour emissions, leading Paul Richardson, UK Business Development Director at Knowaste, to say that council officers had “sought to move the goalposts and block this proposal… at every opportunity”. The company subsequently appealed the decision to the Planning Inspectorate.

Following a hearing and visit to the site in February, Inspector I Jenkins, appointed by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, this month (14 March) dismissed the appeal, confirming the council’s judgement of ‘the effect of the proposal on the living conditions of sensitive receptors, with particular reference to odour’ being the case’s main issue.

The proposed site in Hayes shares a boundary with the Grand Union Canal, with a primary school on the other side of the waterway and residential areas to either side.

The inspector’s decision this month comes at the same time as hygiene company PHS Group has unveiled a new AHP processing facility in Knowaste’s old premises in West Bromwich.

Odour issues

Knowaste’s process for recycling AHPs consists of sending the waste to an autoclave where it is shredded, separated and then sterilised using advanced thermal treatment technology and sorted to remove any contaminants. The plastics are then granulated, before being pelletised and reprocessed offsite for reuse. Fibres produced by the process are treated for use as a pet litter, which can be bagged on site and distributed to the retail sector.

The company argued to the inspector that the plant’s conversion of AHPs into plastic pellets and fibre materials would contribute towards the aims of increasing recycling levels in the capital and ‘moving towards waste treatment self-sufficiency’, as called for in both the Mayor of London’s ‘The London Plan’ and the West London Waste Plan (WLWP), established by six West London Boroughs to set out a strategy for the sustainable management of waste produced in the area over the period up to 2031.

Hillingdon Council’s Major Applications Planning Committee last year ruled that ‘whilst the principle of using the site for waste development is considered acceptable, there are concerns with regards to the impact of the proposal on the nearby residential occupants and schools to the south and west of the site’.

It added that the committee had ‘reservations with the assumptions and conclusions’ of Knowaste’s assessments and modelling of the facility’s odour emissions, suggesting that they ‘significantly underestimate the risk of odour exposure’.

Knowaste told the inspector last month that designs of the plant contained ‘appropriate measures’ to minimise unplanned and planned releases of odours from the site, with partitions to compartmentalise the building and an air management system to filter air from treatment areas before discharge. Knowaste did admit, however, that the stack discharge would be likely to contain a residual level of odour.

Harm ‘would not be outweighed by other considerations’

The inspector noted that the WLWP held that ‘waste development proposals will be permitted only where it can be shown that unacceptable impact to local amenity will not arise from the operation of the facility and adequate means of controlling odour emissions are incorporated into the scheme’.

Summing up his decision, Jenkins said: ‘I conclude on balance, having had regard to the economic, social and environmental impacts of the proposal, that the harm I have identified, with particular reference to the impact of odour on the living conditions of sensitive receptors, would not be outweighed by other considerations.

‘Furthermore, in my judgement, it would be unlikely to be possible to reduce the harm identified to an acceptable level through the imposition of reasonable conditions. For the reasons given above, I conclude that the appeal should be dismissed.’

A statement on the Knowaste website said simply: ‘We regret the decision and are actively reviewing our options for the UK marketplace.’

PHS facility turns absorbent hygiene products into RDF
PHS's new facility will dry AHPs for use as combustable fuel.
Door closes and window opens for AHP processing

News of the appeal’s rejection comes in the same month that hygiene products company PHS Group announced the opening of its PHS LifeCycle facility on Knowaste’s old site in West Bromwich.

Using a different process, and one that significantly does not involve recycling, PHS LifeCycle converts AHP waste into refuse-derived fuel, which can then be burnt to produce energy. When the West Bromwich plant hits full capacity, PHS expects it to be able to process up to 45,000 tonnes of AHP waste a year.

Knowaste closed down the UK’s ‘first ever’ AHP recycling facility in 2013 – after just 20 months of operation, saying that it had ‘outgrown’ the facility and was pursuing ‘expansion plans’. The sudden closure left many local authorities that had established separate collections of nappies in ‘disarray’.

The number of local authorities offering separate nappy collections is likely to increase in the near future, not because of recycling capacity, but to appease residents as councils move towards less and less frequent bin collections. At present, the majority of councils collecting nappies send them to landfill or energy-from-waste.

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