Municipal Waste Disposal Services in Greater Manchester: dealing with COVID-19

Greater Manchester, with a population of around 2.8 million, is one of the UK’s single largest areas for waste disposal. In 1986, the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA) was created, covering most of Greater Manchester[1]. In 2018, the activities of the GMWDA were made part of the more general Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). The leading provider of waste services for the GMCA is now Suez International, which has replaced Viridor. The company signed an initial seven-year contract with the GMCA in May 2019[2].

The Greater Manchester area generates around 1.1 million tonnes of waste each year. This figure has not changed much over the past five years. In 2018/19, around 47% was recycled or composted, up a little from 43% in 2014/15. The biggest change has been regarding landfill. In 2014/15, Greater Manchester sent 30% of waste to landfill, equal to 331,861 tonnes. By 2018/19, this had fallen to 8%, or 85,643 tonnes. Much of this now goes to WtE incineration. This accounted for 44% of waste disposal in 2018/19 (496,692 tonnes), compared with 25% (269,861 tonnes) in 2014/15.

Andy - Manchester 2
Source: DEFRA

Waste Facilities

There are now no active landfills in the area. The GMCA continues to maintain four closed sites, but the majority of old sites were sold off for redevelopment in 2012[3]. As noted above, landfill tonnage has reduced considerably, and what remains is presumably freighted outside the area for disposal.

Residual waste is first taken to one of five Mechanical Treatment and Reception facilities. These are located in Oldham, Salford, Sharston and Stockport, as well as Manchester itself[4]. These sort waste and create RDF, which is taken to the Runcorn facility (see below).

Greater Manchester maintains one WtE incineration facility, at Raikes Lane in Bolton. This is an old facility, first built in 1971 and modernised in 2000. It generates up to 11 MW of electricity and has annual capacity of around 100,000 tonnes[5].

This is only around 20% of the total WtE registered for Greater Manchester. The bulk of the rest is sent to the Runcorn Energy From Waste Plant. This is in Cheshire, outside Greater Manchester. The site is managed by Viridor and opened in two stages in 2015. It can treat around 850,000 tonnes of waste annually, and generates a maximum of 80 MW of electrical power.

Finally, the GMCA maintains a Materials Recovery Facility, located at Longley Lane in Manchester. This can handle 90,000 tonnes of pre-separated recycling waste per year, and sorts glass, metals and plastics.

Andy - Manchester 1
Source: GCMA/AcuComm database

COVID-19: Lockdown challenges

The effects of the COVID-19 lockdown have been affected in two principal ways, as SUEZ seeks to implement the necessary social distancing rules. Firstly there are fewer household waste collections. Domestic waste collection across Manchester typically entails one general waste collection per week, plus fortnightly collections for paper, metal/glass/plastic, and garden/food waste. Under the COVID-19 restrictions, the weekly general collection remains, but recycling collections are now only monthly, and weekly garden/food waste collections have stopped altogether.

Secondly, as of March 23rd, all 20 public recycling centres across Greater Manchester have been closed, until further notice. Individuals and tradesmen are no longer able to take garden waste or bulky items to be disposed of.

It is far too early for statistics to appear, but there are sure to have been major changes in the composition of waste. With more people at home more of the time, the volume of domestic waste can be expected to rise, counterbalanced by a major, and probably far greater, fall in waste from businesses, shops and restaurants. Within the domestic sphere, recycling levels are likely to fall, as people put more of their recyclables into their regular bin, instead of the recycling bin (fewer collections) or taking things to the recycling centre (closed). While the overall level of waste generation is probably falling during the lockdown, dealing with these changing geographic and waste-mix patterns is a challenge for waste companies and managers.

There are other knock-on environmental effects too. The ban on food waste collections had to be briefly lifted, as councils realised that indefinitely leaving rotting food in people’s bins is a potential public health hazard. Noticeably more people have been having bonfires in their gardens, seemingly to get rid of garden waste that is not now being collected. We can probably expect a rise in fly-tipping, as people have no easy means of disposing of bulky or difficult-to-dispose-of items. As I write, there is some vague talk of a partial reopening of recycling centres, probably for those very reasons. Finally, more people are doing their grocery shopping online, and this is leading to a resurgence in single-use plastic bags, as these are the best way to deliver shopping in the days of social distancing. I am sure there will be other, as yet unforeseen, consequences.

These sorts of restrictions and challenges are of course not unique to Manchester; they apply to urban areas across the UK and indeed the developed world. When economies come out of this emergency, many things are going to look very different, and the waste sector cannot expect to remain unaffected.

[1] The town of Wigan is the only part of Greater Manchester to continue to manage its waste disposal separately.

[2] Suez press release

[3] GMCA

[4] GMCA


Andy Crofts: Chief Analyst, AcuComm