Essex County Council Waste Strategy Goes Up in Smoke

24 September 2015

ECC Cabinet approves contract policy that could cost Essex taxpayers £15 million a year to burn residual household waste

Essex County Council has approved (Cabinet 22nd September) an SRF contract policy that could see the outputs from their Basildon Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) waste plant being trucked to private waste burning facilities to be incinerated at a cost of about £15 million a year to Essex taxpayers.

When the Essex Waste Strategy was formed, the claim was that the outputs from MBT would be a “valuable” commodity which could be traded to produce “renewable” energy. The contract for the Basildon plant states that ECC “owns” the plant output - so that it can trade it. The output is shredded and dried mixed household waste known as SRF.

But now that ownership of about 200,000 tonnes of SRF a year and the cost of having to dispose of it has become a financial headache for the county council.

The contract policy approved at Cabinet on 22nd September includes a plan on how the council will invite contractors to bid for SRF contracts in lots and also that the main 10 year contracts will begin in 2019/20. The total contract is sufficiently large that it has to be dealt with under European procurement rules, which require a fair and open market process.

However, in a bizarre turn of events, Essex County Council’s planning department has issued a briefing note to the Witham MP Priti Patel about the current planning application to change the process balance of the proposed Rivenhall major waste site – an application which includes increasing the incineration capacity by 65%. In the briefing ECC states “RDF generated at Courtauld Road (the Basildon MBT) could be utilised in the Energy from Waste facility at Rivenhall, subject to contract”.

Green County Councillor James Abbott raised questions about this at the Cabinet meeting – as to how such a statement from the planning department of ECC is compatible with the waste procurement department at ECC operating a fair and open contract bidding process.

Cllr. James Abbott, Green Party District and County Councillor, and co-founder of the Stop The Incinerator campaign said

“For 2 decades now, campaign groups have been questioning Essex County Council’s reliance on its monolithic waste strategy aim of having just 2 very large waste sites in Essex, through which up to half of all household waste in the county would not be recycled, but would be destined to be incinerated after being shredded and dried. This binary model – of Basildon and Rivenhall – featured in the first PFI bid that ECC submitted to the Government (though a subsequent bid relied on Basildon).

We have questioned how this approach is compatible with targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, what the risks are that it will stifle progress in recycling and what are the potential costs to taxpayers compared with a high recycling strategy based on the districts and boroughs. Repeatedly ECC has said their strategy was the right one.

But now that strategy looks to be going up in smoke. Far from being a “valuable” commodity to be traded, SRF could cost (on ECC’s own figures) Essex taxpayers £15 million a year to get rid of. The County Council is arguing this is a (marginal) saving over landfill costs on projected estimated figures, but what they are not doing is comparing the costs with the much better strategy of going for higher levels of recycling, which not only avoids landfill tax, it produces collected materials which can genuinely attract income in the market.

ECC’s strategy costs taxpayers at every stage – trucking waste to transfer stations (built with taxpayer money); trucking it down to the Basildon MBT (built with taxpayer money); trucking the SRF back out to be incinerated – which taxpayers will now have to pay private companies to take.

We have also since the 1990s questioned ECC’s approach to the proposed waste site at Rivenhall Airfield. ECC has repeatedly claimed that it is purely a private site and that they are just the planning authority dealing with applications. However ECC supported the applicant at the 2009 Planning Inquiry, including hiring a barrister at taxpayer expense to question local objectors. Information obtained under FoI has showed that ECC had also entered into a series of discussions and agreements (1) with the site owners about future cooperation should the plant be built. Now we see a briefing note from the planning department in which ECC directly links Rivenhall to a potential contract to take ECC owned SRF – a contract which could be worth £ millions to the operators of the Rivenhall plant. ECC needs to explain this briefing especially as they will be deciding on the latest planning application for the site in the next few months. The Leader of ECC has pledged to respond to me on this issue.

Senior Conservatives at ECC have repeatedly criticised Greens and others for challenging their approach (2) and claim that we do not have an alternative. This is simply untrue. Essex Green Party and other groups have for many years had a policy of aiming for at least 70% recycling by 2020, based on expanding local recycling, composting and materials recovery via the districts and boroughs. This strategy would avoid the need to spend so much taxpayers money on transfer stations, the Basildon plant, excessive haulage or SRF disposal. We have supported the development of local processing facilities on suitable sites such as existing industrial areas – which means that waste can be treated locally, not trucked backwards and forwards across the county clogging up the roads and adding to air pollution. ECC’s endgame has always been to burn a large fraction of ECC household waste, which will pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and produce toxins which will lower local air quality and contaminate soils and water – filters cannot take all of the “nasties” out.

Finally, ECC and the Rivenhall waste plant applicants have failed to explain their claim that Basildon and Rivenhall are “recycling facilities” or that the energy produced from burning SRF would be “renewable”.

The reality is that only about 10 to 15% of the tonnage going into Basildon will get recycled. For Rivenhall, based on the new application, it is just 19%.

Only the bio fraction of SRF (wood, paper, cardboard, food - which should in any case be mostly recycled) can legally qualify as producing renewable energy. Most of the energy produced by burning SRF is not renewable because of the high content of non-bio materials such as plastics.”

Notes

  1. A Confidentiality Agreement was signed between ECC and the Rivenhall waste site promoters and draft joint access arrangements were discussed. Rivenhall was modelled as taking the outputs from Basildon in the first ECC PFI bid to Government.
  2. Over a decade ago, Lord Hanningfield, as the then Leader of Essex County Council, stated that Greens were “political scaremongers” for saying an incinerator was being planned in Essex to take household waste – and specifically at Rivenhall Airfield. Yet documents in the public domain and those secured under FoI have repeatedly pointed to this outcome since this planning saga on the airfield began in the 1990s.