Essex draft waste strategy: overcoming challenges and implementing a circular economy

Last month, consultation closed on the Essex Waste Partnership's new waste management draft strategy. Izzy Felton looks at the challenges Essex has faced, the changes they plan to make and what can be learnt from the successes of waste initiatives in Oxfordshire.
Essex draft waste strategy: overcoming challenges and implementing a circular economy
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Last month, consultation closed on the Essex Waste Partnership's new waste management draft strategy. Izzy Felton looks at the challenges Essex has faced, the changes they plan to make and what can be learnt from the successes of waste initiatives in Oxfordshire. 

With a population of over 1.8 million, it might not be a surprise that Essex has had its fair share of issues concerning waste management. In 2022, the county sent 350,000 tonnes of waste to landfill, becoming the county’s main method of waste disposal. 

This year, Essex County Council set up the Essex Waste Partnership (EWP) to tackle the county's waste management issue. And along with the partnership comes a new waste strategy, outlining proposals for managing the county’s waste over the next 30 years. Chairman of the Essex Waste Partnership, Councillor Peter Schwier said:

Our aim is to reduce waste, protect the environment and save resources, and we need to rethink our approach to waste management in Essex.

Despite improvements in waste management since the last strategy in 2007, Essex still sends over half of its 660,000 tonnes of waste per year to landfill. Attempts at tackling the issue have so far been unsuccessful, including the county’s 2012 waste treatment contract with UBB Waste Ltd. The agreement included a Mechanical Biological Treatment facility, worth £800 million over its lifetime, intended to treat 417,000 tonnes of residual waste per year. However, the contract was cancelled earlier this year due to several “significant” performance issues at the facility in Basildon.

But what local authorities are having more success?

This year, Oxfordshire County Council was named best-performing waste disposal authority in England. Out of the roughly 300,000 tonnes of household waste produced in Oxfordshire between 2021-22, 58% was recycled, reused or composted.

Oxfordshire County Council’s Joint Acting Group Manager for Waste Contracts, Ms Frankie Upton explained that recovering value from residual waste was the council's "key policy" in their 2007 joint municipal waste management strategy, the Oxfordshire Resources and Waste Partnership (ORWP). However, city and district councils were also encouraged to change collections to "drive up recycling rates" while the ORWP procured the infrastructure for food recycling and residual waste treatment.

Ardley ERF residual waste plant was the residual waste project that really pushed Oxfordshire forward. The plant was part of a 25-year contract awarded to Viridor in 2011. Since operation began in 2015, Oxfordshire started recycling and recovering more waste than it landfilled for the first time. 100,000 tonnes of Oxfordshire’s waste is diverted to the plant each year, and it is hoped that the landfill site next to Ardley ERF will be closed in less than 35 years when all waste can be diverted to the EfW facility.

Ms Upton explained that procurement and planning for EfW facilities are a tricky task, but eventually having one has paid off for Oxfordshire. She said:

Getting to that point took a lot of time, effort, resources and determination by everyone involved in the procurement, including resolution of planning issues that many EfW facilities have encountered. However, since then Ardley ERF has continuously delivered our service requirements for landfill diversion and energy recovery. Put simply, it does what it says on the tin!

However, this hasn't stopped the county from pushing recycling, reusing and composting. Oxfordshire partakes in plenty of schemes attempting to divert residents’ waste disposal habits to more sustainable methods, such as Recycling Week and a recent disposable vape recycling project that prevents residents from putting hazardous vapes in regular bins. However, Ms Upton noted that a lot of residual waste could still be recycled. She said:

We estimate about a third of residual waste is still food which we would dearly love to move up the waste hierarchy and be recycled to help reduce disposal costs.

The Essex Waste Partnership draft strategy, created in August this year, focuses on creating a reliable circular economy much like Oxfordshire. To prioritise waste reduction, reusing resources and recycling as much waste as possible. Essex County Council have acknowledged the need for a focus on recycling, which has declined in recent years. They said:

Although we have increased the proportion of waste recycled from 21% in 2000/01 to 52% in 2020/21 this has plateaued over recent years and in some areas is falling.

It sets out goals to reduce waste by 10% and reuse, recycle or compost at least 70% by 2030. This fits the government’s latest announcement of a Simpler Recycling strategy of separate food waste collections and recycling services for plastic, paper and card, metal, glass and garden waste.

Construction of an EfW facility in Essex started in November 2022. The Rivenhall EfW contract was won by the waste management company, Indaver, with initial plans including a paper facility. However, after disagreements between the council and Indaver, the paper facility was removed from the planning conditions. The council previously said it expected Rivenhall to be operational by early 2026.

Along with the draft strategy, Essex County Council opened a consultation on behalf of the EWP, asking Essex residents to have their say in the new proposals. The EWP are hopeful that the draft will allow them to make next steps to a more circular waste management strategy. Mr Schwier said:

We’ve used research and insight to develop the draft strategy. It sets out our ambitions and our proposed approach to waste management. What we decide now will affect future generations so it’s important people of all ages have their say. We are ready to listen.

The consultation opened on 13 September and closed on 22 November. All responses received from residents during the consultation period will be independently reviewed and shared next February. In the draft, the EWP said, "The cost of not taking any action – both monetary and environmental – would be unaffordable." Mr Schwier said:

We have come a long way since the last strategy and deliberately set ambitious targets for the next 30 years. We can achieve these if we all play a part.

By Izzy Felton

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