Whenever I tell people I’m a waste planner, they feel compelled to tell me about their household recycling. In fact, waste planning is land use planning: how many and what type of new waste facilities will we need in the future, and where will they go? It’s also about development management: writing and implementing policies which ensure that any negative impacts of new facilities are reduced and that waste is reused and recycled rather than disposed of to landfill.
Waste facilities are perennially unpopular, despite the fact that the majority of modern operations are enclosed in the same type of large sheds that you’d expect to see on any industrial estate.
Targets for waste management come from the European Union. In England, the National Planning Policy for Waste (NPPW) and the National Planning Practice Guidance: Waste set out requirements for planners in both plan-making and determining planning applications.
Most waste planning authorities (WPAs) plan for waste on the basis of net self-sufficiency, that is, providing capacity for the equivalent of all waste generated in the area, regardless of where it is eventually managed.
There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the NPPW requires communities to take more responsibility for their own waste. Secondly, the duty to co-operate means that WPAs need to engage with the authorities where significant amounts of their waste are managed or disposed of. There is almost always resistance to accepting waste from another area, so waste planning authorities must demonstrate they are actively planning for more waste capacity within their own areas.
Impact of housing need on land use
The main issue for waste planners, especially in urban areas, is finding sufficient suitable land for new waste facilities. In London where I work, and other major cities, the priority for building new homes has resulted in the release (loss) of large swathes of industrial land for residential and mixed use. Changes to permitted development have also had an impact.
Between 2011 and 2015, an average of 106ha of London’s industrial land was released each year for other uses, vastly exceeding the annual limit of 37ha set by the London Plan.
While green belt remains untouchable, industrial land will continue to be the focus for new housing and mixed use development. The result of this is three-fold: the displacement of existing waste facilities, a reduction in the most suitable land for new waste facilities, and an increase in waste. When seeking capacity and land for new facilities to achieve net self-sufficiency this creates difficulties.
Waste is unpopular
Another hurdle is that waste facilities are perennially unpopular, despite the fact that the majority of modern operations are enclosed in the same type of large sheds that you’d expect to see on any industrial estate. Residents (voters) do not like the thought of living near a waste facility. Their main concerns are traffic, odour and pollution. While in England the Environment Agency has an important role to play through their licencing regime, particularly for pollution control, planning policies are key to mitigating these negative impacts.
So, what are the solutions?
Protecting existing capacity is important. In London, we benefit from a London Plan policy which requires compensatory provision if a waste site is redeveloped for other uses. This has been vital to retaining existing waste capacity.
There may be potential for consolidating, co-locating and intensifying existing waste facilities, but these opportunities are limited and will only work in certain areas. Building higher density industrial units is another possibility. Multi-storey sheds could free up land and retain an equivalent industrial floor space but their viability depends on costs and structural implementation.
Waste planners are striving to find solutions at a local level to what is fundamentally a strategic national issue.
There are also opportunities to embed waste facilities within new developments, such as anaerobic digesters to deal with food waste from residents. Good management and monitoring of such a facility is vital and, again, more work is needed to explore its viability and deliverability.
The circular economy and behaviour change will help. The former is about keeping resources in use for as long as possible, then recovering products and materials at the end of their life. It is an alternative to the current linear economy, where we make, use and then dispose of products and materials. This requires changes to business models and product assembly methods. But while it can help reduce waste, land will still be required for facilities which disassemble, refurbish or re-manufacture the recovered material.
Inevitably, there are multiple responses to how to accommodate more waste facilities with less industrial land, and waste planners will strive to find solutions at a local level to what is fundamentally a strategic national issue. Meanwhile, at a micro-local level, I will also endeavour to answer your dinner-party questions about what happens to your household waste.
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Victoria Manning MRTPI is a chartered town planner and the director of Vitaka Consulting which provides waste planning services to public and private sector clients. Victoria is also Secretary of the London Waste Planning Forum. @Vitaka_uk