The best features in recycling
It’s fair to say that for the most part the UK’s waste is fairly harmless. Problematic and dirty it may be, but it’s unlikely to kill you (at least not in the short term). Yet there is one type of waste that is far from a laughing matter, which requires expert handling and disposal: explosives – bombs and the accumulated detritus of mankind’s past conflicts.
These fall into two main categories. One is ‘time-expired’ pyrotechnics, such as marine flares that have passed their use-by date. More serious though is unexploded ordnance or UXOs, which include bombs, shells, grenades and landmines.
You’d assume that the latter would be more of a concern for countries such as Bosnia or Kosovo rather than Britain. Not so, says Dave Welch, Managing Director of Ramora UK, one of a growing number of firms that deal with end-of-life explosives. “I can tell you most of our response is UK-based at the moment”, he reveals. “The National Archive indicates that there are in excess of 60,000 mines from World War II still remaining in the North Sea. There are one million tonnes of ordnance remaining in Beaufort’s Dyke [a sea trench that lies between Scotland and Northern Ireland]. And many areas of the Thames Estuary and other areas round the coast are littered with it as well.”
For fairly obvious reasons, then, it’s important that these items are properly dealt with. Just placing them in the residual waste stream is out of the question. “If you just throw pyrotechnics into a skip or leave them somewhere then children could find them or play with them”, says Welch. “In the past there have been instances where discarded pyrotechnics have set dustbin lorries and recycling plants on fire, so correct storage, transportation and disposal of these items is really important.”
According to Welch, dealing with unexploded ordnance is something of a boom area (no pun intended). Since Ramora UK was set up in 2005, it has dealt with over 250,000 separate items, at a rate of two to three call outs a week. Partly this is because an already overstretched military is gradually stepping away from dealing with such incidents, but partly also because of increased building in previously untouched areas. Prospective wind farms are just one example of a type of development that has encroached on areas that had previously been dumping grounds for munitions.
The disposal and de-activisation of time-expired pyrotechnics is relatively straightforward, as Stephen Bevan, Operations Manager of EOD Contracts, another firm that specialises in this field, explains. “They will generally be taken to a safety range where they are ignited and burned. The chemicals get burnt off. What else that can be recovered will be used. We’ve got two streams of waste. Some of the plastics that cannot be put through any other system still go into landfill, although we are trying to find another route at present.”
However, particularly in UXOs, there is usually a quantity of metal – steel, brass or aluminium – that remains at the end of the disposal process. This residual amount, which can be up to 60 per cent of the total weight of the explosive, will be recycled.
With military explosives and UXOs, the disposal procedure is slightly different. “There you would place a countermining charge or a secondary charge next to the item that you want to dispose of”, says Welch. “So if I had a nine-inch shell I wanted to get rid of I’d detonate that small charge and that would in effect cause the larger item to detonate itself.
“Clearly if you’ve got a fairly built up area that’s more challenging, so there are certain things that you can do. You can use more sandbags, or you can get approval to relocate the item, which requires significant liaison with the HSE and the police.”
Needless to say, both Ramora UK and EOD Contracts supply significant training to their workforce. “All our guys come from military backgrounds”, explains Bevan. “Often they’ve had some operational experience. But we also do our own training – we’re a City and Guilds training centre. I can take a building site worker for a day and give him some awareness so if he came across something and recognised it as ammunition he’d know the first steps to take to make himself and the site safe – i.e. to evacuate and make a phone call.”
A large percentage of the work for Ramora UK and EOD Contracts is outside the UK, where attitudes to explosives can be more blasé and regulation is non-existent. “We were working in Egypt one time and there was a stores dump”, says Bevan. “It contained time-expired UXOs and they’re sitting in the sun, which is obviously not a good way to be. In the UK things that are time-expired are destroyed or disposed of in a professional manner. But you get foreign armies who think, ‘We don’t need this anymore’, and just put it in a stores area and leave it.”
Yet back in the UK despite the increase in domestic workload for firms like Ramora UK and EOD Contracts, it is surprisingly difficult to track down legislation controlling the disposal of explosives, either at national or EU level. One government department actually told us the subject was ‘very obscure’, but pursuing the matter, we managed to get some clarification from the Ministry of Defence (MoD): “The HSE licence the storage and processing elements and the EA cover pollution control/waste incineration permits, etc”, a spokesman says, adding: “Some examples (there are many) of relevant UK/EU legislation are as follows: Manufacture and Storage of Explosive Regulations Act 2005; Control of Explosives Regulations 1991; H&SW Act 1974; Pollution Preventative and Control Regs (EU IPPC Directive); Waste Incineration Regs (EU/2000/76/EC – Waste Incineration Directive).”
Nevertheless, room for improvement remains. “There is no legislation, no guidance, and there is very little in the way of coordination”, complains Welch. “What needs to happen is that standards need to be set, monitored and policed by some form of government body and I think the HSE are probably the ones to do it. They’re certainly looking at and have started to develop some best practice guidelines.
“As time goes by and more people start doing this there will be a greater need for some control and coordination of the legislation, so that everybody is working to the same standard and people can be held accountable. We’re dealing with dangerous items here and the public need to be assured that we’re doing it in the safe and compliant manner.”
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