Tackling hazardous household waste: is education the answer?

Jason Houghton, Commercial Waste Director
23 October 2017
Image of a recycling centre.
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Amey’s Account Director for Commercial Waste, Jason Houghton, takes a look at the constraints and costs of dealing with growing volumes of hazardous household waste. Jason – whose background includes working at the UK’s largest specialist hazardous waste company - asks whether the answer lies in better education for residents or should manufacturers be taking more responsibility?

Every day the Household Waste Recycling Centres managed by Amey are faced with a mountain of materials being dropped off by householders – classified as hazardous but to the average resident, it’s just something to be thrown away.

And that’s partly where the issue lies. Society has changed. The goods we consume (and the way we consume them) has changed. We all use a variety of small, electronic gadgets housing different battery types. Increasing numbers of chemically-based household products, to clean every part of our homes, are lined up on supermarket shelves and we’re faced with a range of products to look after our cars and keep our gardens blooming.

A throw-away society

Coupled with that, we have steadily become a throw-away society; indeed, the volume of hazardous waste received at Amey’s Household Waste Recycling Centres has been on the increase since 2013.

But does the average resident really understand or see these items as hazardous and know how to deal with them as such?

Household Waste Recycling Centres should, of course, be the correct destination for such materials coming from households. But that in itself isn’t as simple as it sounds.

Many Household Waste Recycling Centres are based on sites which were designed a few decades ago, when they housed only a handful of disposal bins.

Today, with ever increasing demands on improving recycling rates and environmental performance alongside safety requirements, Household Waste Recycling Centres have led the way in segregating materials, often being the cornerstone to any local authority strategy to increase reuse, recycling and recovery of household wastes.

Increasing demands on HWRCs

Over the years, the volumes of waste collected on modern Household Waste Recycling Centre sites has increased - as has the number of wastes that are now separately collected (over 25 different types of waste). This has put increasing demands on the layouts and space of Household Waste Recycling Centres, many of which still stand on their originally sized footprint. With council budget constraints, the cost of improving or delivering new sites proves difficult.

And it is here we should perhaps look at the root of the situation. What can be done to support the management of and reduce costs involved in, disposing of hazardous household waste?

If we take a snapshot look at one of the Household Waste Recycling Centres managed by Amey in Northamptonshire, we get an overview of the range of items to be dealt with. An average recycling centre in 2016 /17 received over two tonnes of aerosols, 38 tonnes of paint and 12 tonnes of automobile oil.

But that’s the tip of the volume iceberg – there were also over 101 tonnes of fridge freezers or cold appliances and 50 tonnes of display equipment (TVs or monitors), while small domestic appliances added another 219 tonnes.

Each type of hazardous material collected at a Household Waste Recycling Centre needs to be stored safely, without causing detriment to the environment or human health. Different types of hazardous materials need to be properly segregated from each other and stored in appropriate containers and at a safe distance from other hazardous materials. For example, paint waste should be stacked carefully in stillages with covers that protect the contents from the weather; household chemicals are stored in weatherproof containers or chemsafes; oils stored safely in bunded tanks; fluorescent lamps, gas discharge lamps and other WEEE equipment that contains mercury must be kept undercover in weatherproof containers at all times.

Safe storage is paramount

All hazardous waste should also be stored on impermeable surfaces and in a way that avoids the risk of spilling or contaminating nearby drains or sewers.

This comes at a cost and it’s a cost which waste operators and local authorities are left to bear. Whether it’s the cost of safety training to ensure Household Waste Recycling Centre staff understand how to safely handle, store and consign these types of materials or the cost of upgrading constrained sites, it’s a burden to be borne at a local operating level.

As the cost of disposing and processes hazardous materials grows – ranging from £170 to over £1,000 per tonne depending on the material – it’s time we looked at responsibility for such costs.

Within the waste industry itself, we’re getting smarter on managing materials. Bespoke recycling plants are coming online for items such as batteries and aerosols, while WEEE schemes are well established.

But is it time to look more closely at putting financial responsibility for hazardous household waste back to the manufacturers who produced it?

Making manufacturers and residents more aware

Corporate social responsibility programmes are seeing producer responsibility take hold in areas such as food waste and plastics. Our industry, through its various forums and networks, needs to also consider what we can do to bring this into play in the hazardous waste arena. How can we combine responsibility and commercial aspects to put this on the agenda for more manufacturers and suppliers?

I asked earlier whether the solution to hazardous waste management lies in better education or producer responsibility. The answer is both.

Until residents understand the dangers of the materials they throw away, they won’t appreciate the need to dispose of it safely. Simply throwing away a battery in your black bag waste or wheelie bin can have unintended consequences, including fire risk.

Across Amey we run a range of community education programmes to continue emphasising the importance of using the correct bin or your local HWRC. The ethos of reduce, reuse, recycle is embedded across this – but more needs to be done across the industry to ensure residents specifically understand the risks associated with the materials they throw away. Do they understand which hazardous materials they have in their home, could they have bought safer alternatives (such as water rather than oil based) and do they buy only the amount of hazardous material needed for the job?

Recycling paint for community use

Amey, as with others, also supports the national Re-Paint programme through six of its Cambridgeshire Household Recycling Centres. Backed by Dulux, the scheme prevents surplus, usable paint from entering the waste stream and recycles it for community group use.

Ultimately manufacturers, local authorities, and residents all need to share responsibility for hazardous household waste. The argument for shared responsibility (across waste and recycling in general) was also put forward by the think tank Green Alliance earlier this year when it added its voice to calls for the introduction of extended producer responsibility to boost recycling in England.

Green Alliance called on policy to ensure “a fair distribution of rights and responsibilities across all groups who participate in the materials recovery process”, while adding no one group should shoulder an unfair share of the burden.

The Green Alliance added that the “only certain thing is that hard-pressed councils are having to pick up an unfair share of the bill, despite their obvious financial constraints. But they have no power to bring down the costs”.

There are, of course, many practicalities that need to be considered when looking at producer responsibility and education programmes. Amey will continue to debate these through its involvement in Business in the Community’s Circular Economy Taskforce. And – by considering them – industry can aim to reduce the cost of hazardous household waste disposal from the public purse.

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