When wet and stormy weather batters the UK, flooding causes damage to homes and businesses, leaving challenging waste in its wake.
Last winter’s flooding in the north of England resulted in around 30,000 tonnes of water-damaged household goods being classified as contaminated and dumped in landfill sites. Councils were hit with a landfill tax bill over £2.25 million, according to the Local Government Association, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales.
But the true cost is far higher – the infrastructure repair bill ran into the hundreds of millions, while many communities and businesses are still battling to overcome last winter’s devastation.
For resource and waste management professionals, planning and putting flood risk strategies in place is paramount. Putting contingencies in place to try and stave off the worst impacts of climate change is about adapting to this new reality, rather than trying to prevent what is already happening.
Just as there is no mystery in the link between high rainfall and flooding in the UK, there is also no excuse not to have contingency plans in place. Notifying and mobilising waste management teams ahead of a large storm, or a period of prolonged rain in a flood-prone area, is a clear first step.
The Environment Agency website (www.gov.uk/government/organisations/environment-agency) highlights flood risk areas, and issues flood warnings whenever there is a risk. Planning for flooding should be a requirement under any resource and waste management company’s environmental permit, and permit holders should keep their plan under review, and contact their local Environment Agency office directly in case of flooding.
The aim is always to re-start doorstep collections as soon as possible, but in flood-disrupted areas, recycling and waste management crews must be flexible in re-routing to and safely reaching as many homes as possible.
Technology is helping with flood forecasting. The Environment Agency also offers a real-time flood information service, for instance, which includes a smart phone app giving live flood warning data tailored to the locality of the subscriber. Resource and waste management professionals can also regularly post on their websites and through social media to help direct queries about the clean-up effort.
Local flood action groups are also worth participating in – resource and waste management professionals should try to create a link with the local community to share ideas and flood action plans, and attend meetings if possible. Establishing safe waste pick-up areas in advance of an incident, for instance, can save valuable time and effort during a flood.
Some councils classify all flood-damaged items from households as contaminated and hazardous, and send this all to landfill. But following the winter 2015/16 floods, the Environment Agency ‘muddied the waters’ somewhat by issuing new classifications for flood-damaged waste.
The Agency said that, while items such as carpets and furniture may be damaged or contaminated, they are unlikely to be classed as hazardous after flooding unless they have encountered a significant amount of oil or other hazardous materials.
Recycling still an option
Crucially, it said landfill was not the only option, as recycling could still be possible in many cases. At the same time, the Department for Communities and Local Government said that local authorities could claim compensation for costs related to flooding – another incentive to deal with flood-damaged waste appropriately.
Resource and waste management professionals need to know who in their team will be co-ordinating the overall response to a flood, and map where wastes from a flooded area are likely to be received.
Public health is of primary concern. It is down to local councils and their waste management partners to use their expertise to take the best course of action when it comes to collecting and disposing of flood-damaged items. As such, it is vital that resource and waste management professionals are thoroughly up-to-date with their local authority’s flood action strategy.
There are obvious plans that must be in place, such as emergency responses, placing skips in hard-hit areas, and timetables for increasing waste collection frequency. Other, less obvious plans could also reduce the final volume of waste sent to landfill after a flood.
These include distributing biodegradable hessian sandbags – they can be sent for composting if they are not considered to be contaminated with hazardous substances. Where a large amount of mixed waste has been created, careful sorting with recycling in mind will also help reduce the burden on landfill.
Public advice is key – where contamination has occurred, for instance, informing homeowners that they should double-bag hazardous waste wherever possible will help prevent against further leaks or spillages. Again, the Environment Agency website contains further flood waste guidance.
With rising sea levels, heavy rainfall and increasingly fierce storms looking set to be regular features of the UK’s winters, our future working and living spaces need to be designed around the concept of survivability as much as sustainability.
Drainage systems need to be adequate to cope with more frequent heavy rainfall, while careful consideration needs to be given to how water is discharged downstream. Planting more trees on flood plains is one natural flood management measure that offers a simple and cost-effective way to boost absorption and drainage rates and reduce the peak height of floods, for instance.
Flood risk will be an integral part of the design of our future urban areas, with sustainable and fully integrated drainage and waste management systems designed to respond intelligently to real-time weather conditions.
Successful cities will need to redesign work and living spaces more sustainably, transitioning to a circular economy model, where technical and biological materials form part of a complex cycle rather than a linear produce-consume-dispose chain.
These key topics and many others will be featured at RWM 2017 (12 -13 September in Birmingham, UK, www.rwmexhibition.com) as part of the workshop programme where government, businesses and regulators will come together in high level discussion.