Mechanical Biological Treatment plants – where to now?

David new

In 2000 the European Union issued its Landfill Directive. This gave specific targets for reduction of landfilling using the baseline of 1995 figures. This was followed by various government strategies for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In response to these directives, in 2007 Lancashire County Council (LCC) signed up to what was said to be, at that time, the largest PFI deal relating to waste management, some £2bn over a 25-year period. The deal was based on the design and construction of two Mechanical Biological Treatment facilities (“MBT”) at Farington and Thornton. These two plants started to process waste in 2010.

Up to this point the recycling rates had increased dramatically, however around 2010 this started to tail off. There were a number of reasons for this including the fact that waste and recycling seemed to fade into the background of public awareness as more pressing matters such as the impact of the recession and austerity measures took centre stage.

Fast forward to 2014, and LCC announced that they were terminating the PFI contract and were taking over the running of both its Facilities. This followed reports in 2012 and 2013 that rather than 75% of the waste being diverted from landfill, between 70% and 75% of the waste was actually going the other way.

Then in February 2016 there was a further announcement that LCC had decided to completely mothball both facilities with a loss of 250 jobs. The head of the council’s waste management stated that there had been a significant reduction in the value of recyclables due, he said, to falling oil prices and China’s economic slowdown.

In 2008 over in Manchester an even bigger PFI deal was being struck which included five MBT plants designed by two German companies. Only last month this deal too was terminated with Greater Manchester Waste District Authority purchasing the shares in Viridor Laing (Greater Manchester) Ltd for £1 and paying off all of the outstanding bank loans in full. It is believed that the Anaerobic Digestion elements of the five MBT plants will be completely mothballed, leaving only the front end (or dirty Materials Recovery Facility to give it a more accurate title) being retained.

Alongside these two high-profile PFI contracts, in November 2016 Viridor dramatically, and unexpectedly, terminated its contract with Interserve for the design and construction of the Glasgow Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre citing alleged failures by Interserve to meet its contractual programme milestones. This facility also includes an Anaerobic Digestion element to its overall process.

So, with these two high profile PFI contracts completely mothballing the AD elements of their facilities, and with the Glasgow waiting to see if the performance of the its plant will meet expectations, it leaves a question as to whether MBT-AD plants have any future as part of the UK strategy to deliver the targets required by the EU (although in 2015 these targets were significantly reduced mainly due to complaints from EU nations that the original targets were impossible to achieve).

However, there is another side to this particular equation.

As recently as May of this year the UK Advocacy group WRAP issued an extensive report on recycling guidelines in which it urged local government and county councils to do far more to educate the public on what can, and cannot, be recycled. Furthermore, there has been significant problems with the quality of recycled products due to contamination and co-mingling.

As the University of Salford put it in their introduction to their 2016 conference on the future of waste management “the UK are rubbish at rubbish”. Clearly there is still a great deal more to do, but it would seem that Anaerobic Digestion will not be high on many people’s agendas for the solution.

This may not be fair on this particular process itself as it would seem that there is still a long way to go to get the general public, and also industry as a whole, to realise that we need to become “great at rubbish”.

 David Page

Senior Consultant

October 2017