Compost criminals run amuck in Britain

Gardeners in Britain could face imprisonment if caught composting without the relevant documents under bizarre new regulations…

Composting is not an activity usually associated with law-breaking.
Gardeners have been composting organic matter since gardening began, and doing so is both legitimate and eco-friendly, as long as you keep your activities private.

But if you’re caught with someone else’s scraps, or taking kitchen waste off to your allotment without the relevant documentation, you could, technically, be apprehended by the compost police for your recalcitrant activities.

This may be of no concern to most individual gardeners, but to community composting schemes on city estates it is a serious blow which could put an end to a much-needed initiative.

Community composting is a grassroots, social enterprise which means that urbanites, bereft of land but loath to bin their biodegradables, can get into the composting groove.

It works like this: a group of residents on an estate get together and create a compost heap somewhere on communal ground for communal use within the estate.

Perhaps it is because it so simple and autonomous that community composting is destined for legislation which could confine the whole scheme to the bin.

Once a compost heap is shared with at least one other person or household, it becomes ‘catering waste’ and this requires a waste management licence, issued by the Environment Agency (EA).

However, if catering waste is produced on-site and used on-site, the composting process is exempt from licensing.

Assuming there are no chickens or pigs roaming the premises, simple projects such as those on housing estates qualify for exemption - providing they apply for it.

At the moment exemption is free, but the EA is currently finalising plans to charge community composters a fee of up to £500 for an exemption certificate, to cover the cost of inspecting the site and administration.

Unless the community project gets funding from their local authority - and most don’t - the residents will have to either cough up or give up.

As well as obtaining exemption from certification, community composters also have to fulfil the criteria of the Animal By-Products Regulation (ABPR), which is enforced by the State Veterinary Service.

This is because kitchen waste may be contaminated with meat or other animal products.

If the exemption fee doesn’t kill off community composting, the ABPR will.

The requirements are exacting.

For example, in-vessel matter must be composted for a minimum of two days at 60 degrees centigrade.

You have to be able to prove that the temperatures recorded are from the genuine composting process itself and not an oven.

Records have to be kept of the site’s operation in order to prove that requirements are being met.

They also have to document who brought how much of what type of material.

But even before you get to the composting part of the operation, you first have to carry out a risk analysis of the proposed site and process.

Your site has to be approved, which involves submitting plans and a site inspection by the state vet.

Even then, you’ll only get temporary approval.

You’ll get full approval once you’ve passed the end-product testing.

Your pile will be monitored and inspected regularly and you’ll have to re-apply for approval every two years.

Meeting the ABPR criteria is not only challenging, it is prohibitively expensive, as only high-tech composting processes will make the grade.

One of the many community composting projects most destined for the scrap heap as a result of these regulations is the Recycling in Southwark Project (CRISP).

With each household in London producing over a tonne of waste each year, the capital has to be the vanguard of direct action.

Most people in Southwark however don’t own a garden – 70 percent of the borough’s residents live on estates.

And it is on these estates, on communal land, that CRISP encourages and helps small groups of people to set up and manage their own compost bins.

When the finished product is ready, the participants share it out among themselves and use it for their houseplants, communal gardens, window boxes and kitchen herb gardens.

It’s composting by the people, for the people.

You might think that gardenless residents living on deprived estates could not be less interested, but you’d be wrong. Armin Bobsien, CRISP project coordinator, explains: “We started by leafleting homes, spreading awareness and generating motivation. We got a really positive response. Now we are composting not just on estates but in schools, setting up composting sites as an extra-curricular activity. We also have projects at youth centres, after-school clubs and nurseries. The children love it and it’s really important that they learn from an early age about the importance of recycling this resource”.

CRISP is a member of the Community Composting Network (CCN), an organisation with over 230 members across the UK which promotes composting projects, develops funding opportunities and advises both government bodies and the general public.

The CCN recognises the need for regulation, but thinks the proposals are unrealistic. As CCN chairman Nicky Scott comments: “Regulations are necessary to protect the environment and health. If you don’t have safeguards in place unscrupulous individuals could turn compost heaps into dangerous dumps. But they are hardly needed for community composting on this scale. People want to do the right thing, but these obstacles are just put in their way.”

The benefits of community composting transcend the mere production of natural fertiliser for small groups of people.

Housing estates can be lonely places, engendering social alienation and fear.

Community composting is one way to create something positive, strengthen community spirit and get neighbours working together for the common good.

A sense of community is, after all, something we all yearn for.

“The residents themselves take on the responsibility and manage the sites themselves. They police it and own it” explains Bobsien. “Usually Government policy is a top-down affair. In the case of community compositing, the people can actively participate in their own affairs. It is empowering, giving people the feeling they are in control”.

Nicky Scott has been lobbying hard to obtain derogation for composters on estates, but admits he isn’t optimistic about what he calls ‘farcical laws’. “It’s a frustrating process. Many of these schemes get no help from their local authority and will be forced to close. They won’t just lose compost – they will lose all the social benefits that community composting entails”.

Bobsien from CRISP makes no effort to hide his exasperation. “To look at it you’d think the Government was doing whatever it could to discourage people from community composting, despite what they say about targets. These new regulations will kill off community composting schemes”.

“It’s entirely about money. We’re moving towards a system which means that you have to use private waste management contractors, thereby removing control from local people. These companies are not interested in composting, they want 25-year contracts to manage the waste. Anyway, we don’t see it as “waste”. It’s a valuable resource”, explains Bobsien.

Scott agrees: “The same lobby that wants to force out small-scale, traditional farmers in favour of factory farming also want to close down waste management operations working on a small, local scale. It’s about profit, not the environment”.

With money, community composting schemes can have tremendous value and work with stunning efficiency.

To wit the East London Community Recycling Partnership (ELCRP), who, with almost £300,000 of lottery money pioneered a revolutionary form of composting which has solved the problem of rats, as well as food waste, on council estates in Hackney.

By using a Japanese microbiological system, called EM Bokashi which prevents putrefaction, all food waste, including meat and fish, can be processed without attracting flies or rats, or creating a stink.

This waste is then collected and put into what’s called the Rocket for composting.

The Rocket is an in-vessel, heated composter which dramatically speeds up the composting process – taking about two weeks instead of the usual six to eighteen months.

As a result, at least 70 percent of household waste, previously dumped in landfill sites, can be composted.

This is the only scheme in the UK currently approved to use this system. Without funding, it could stay that way.

The irony is that the same government which has created this minefield of regulations has at the same time committed to EU Landfill Directive targets to reduce by 50 percent the amount of biodegradable household waste sent to landfill sites by 2005.

It’s a target we’re not likely to meet.

Currently, three quarters of our household waste ends up in landfill sites, which compares poorly with other countries such as Denmark and Germany, where over half of household waste is recycled or composted.

According to Friends of the Earth, around 35 percent of the stuff we chuck out is made up of kitchen and garden waste, most of which is compostable, and would cost on average around £8 per household per year to collect for composting.

Composting makes sense and requires little human effort.

The magic is down to microbial alchemists who happily transform evil-smelling rot into black gold.

Considering that compost is such a valuable resource, it is a profanity that most biodegradable matter ends up festering in bin-bags in landfill sites.

But before you let your enthusiasm for composting carry you away, beware: just donating your urban potato peelings to your dad’s allotment makes you a compost criminal, if you are not ABPR-compliant.

And just transporting the stuff requires a waste carrier’s licence, or exemption from licensing.

The country must be rife with rotten lawlessness.