Article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Materials Recycling World.
Little stands still in the world of waste management and the history of Cory bears testament to that. The roots go back to a merger of eight coal companies in 1896 and an emphasis on using the river Thames for transport. That reliance continues, but changes to the company have consolidated both the business model and the focus on waste management – and particularly energy from waste (EfW).
Company names have come and gone, and it was in 1990 that the modern manifestation of Cory Environmental was brought about. Now, though, it is known as Cory Riverside Energy, with a singular emphasis on ferrying London’s waste by barges to the large EfW plant at Belvedere in Kent, overseen by Nick Pollard, the chief executive recruited by chairman Jonson Cox at the end of 2015.
Pollard was brought in to shake things up. Within the past year, Cory’s municipal business has been sold to Biffa, the brokerage side went to Reconomy and 13 landfills sites were bought by Armour Holdings Group in a sale which evoked strong interest. Pollard coyly reveals there were between five and 10 suitors and was delighted at the final deal. Although Armour is an insurance specialist, he says it is a first-class home.
Pollard said he knew what Cory’s board expected of him when he arrived, but it took the first couple of months to assess what would generate an efficient business by simplifying the structure and selling the unwanted parts.
“The core parts, where we are today, is the London operation. It’s the ability to take waste from our transfer stations up the Thames, bring it on our barges and our lighters, and treat it here at Belvedere,” he said.
“Most of the past 18 months was taken up with untangling the constituent parts of the business and the companies within it, and ensuring they were in great shape for somebody else to take on, with very clear, bounded, business propositions.”
Pollard is also proud that colleagues operating Belvedere were not distracted by the transformation: “While we were doing that last year, the team running the business certainly didn’t take their eyes off the ball. We posted a record year in terms of throughput, revenues and profits. They’ve done a great job.”
Cory is Pollard’s first position in the waste sector after significant roles in infrastructure and construction, including time as the UK chief of Balfour Beatty, following an honours degree in civil engineering. He is convinced there is a strong fit because civil engineers appreciate how capital-intensive assets such as EfW plants work and how they are maintained and developed.
“Waste management has changed massively during the course of the past decade or two. You look at what we do now, and it’s not actually about waste – it’s about taking materials and using them to either recover energy or recycle them. Fundamentally, not to waste them.”
Even so, I wonder if construction is a more mature industry, with fewer technological challenges than the ‘younger’ waste. The EfW sector, for example, has had high-profile failures in the Tees Valley and Lancashire in recent years.
There are two key elements, he maintains: the technology has to be right for the job you are asking it to do, and those building and creating the infrastructure have to understand how to run it reliably. Robust processes and tolerant technology are essential in order to handle seasonal fluctuations, material changes, chemical composition and economic pressures, among other variables.
“In some instances, there has been poor engineering on the supply side, in terms of both the technology provision and perhaps in the execution,” said Pollard.
“Was the technology choice right in the first place for the job it was being asked to do? It’s difficult to tell – you’re outside, looking in. But that’s certainly how it appears.
“There is also, perhaps, another factor in this which is around planning permissions, and whether or not some parts of industry have felt they have needed to over-promise on a particular technology in order to persuade a planner to agree to a plant being developed.
“It’s our job to get it right. It’s our job to provide plants that are reliable and do what they say on the tin, and make the most positive use of the stream of residual waste to turn it back for use in society. Whether that’s by recovering materials, or whether that’s by recovering energy or by taking residual ash that comes from an EfW and reutilising it in the construction industry.
“It’s clear that some of the waste plants being commissioned at the moment and were commissioned in the past have struggled. That’s a great shame because it means that the public and, ultimately, the municipalities that commission them, are not getting the service they thought they would.”
But he is proud the Belvedere plant worked “out of the box”, has maintained high levels of reliability and, in 2016, recorded its highest throughput of 753,000 tonnes. To this visitor it is an impressive and well looked-after site.
“I look at the facility that I’ve inherited here and it delights my heart. When I walk around, I see a really well-designed, well-laid out plant that is using technology that’s capable of operating at the scale of three-quarters of a million tonnes of processing a year and is proven.”
The Cory Riverside Energy plant is fed from waste collected at four transfer stations along the Thames – at Wandsworth, Battersea, the City and Tower Hamlets – as part of long-term contracts with the City of London and the Western Riverside Waste Authority.
The barges that shuttle along the river are based at Charlton and, after dropping off their cargo, are loaded with incinerator bottom ash (IBA) for onward delivery at Cory’s processing facility in Tilbury. This exchange takes place on the purpose-built wharf alongside the EfW plant. By weight, around one-third of the material going into the burners at Belvedere goes on to Tilbury for use as construction aggregate. Cory also has a contract with the London borough of Bexley.
I refer to another operator which had argued that this particular waste management method – however ‘green’ it seems – was more expensive than conventional arrangements using lorries and so it might not always appeal to cash-straitened local authorities. Pollard disagrees.
“Lorries are not cheap, lorries sat in traffic jams are even dearer and lorries being taxed because of their emissions become even more expensive. There is clearly a mood in the City of London, in the Greater London Authority, to see more traffic on the river. We’ve operated freight traffic there for more than 100 years and are in a good place to lead that charge.”
It prompts the idea that the model could be replicated elsewhere, that has a decent body of water close to a large population, such as Merseyside or Manchester. “I think you’ve put your finger on it. A decent amount of water, a decent amount of population and, potentially, a need for waste treatment capacity. It’s a theoretical question and it’s a theoretical answer, but, yes.”
This takes us to Cory and Pollard’s plans for future developments. I raise a critique often levelled at most large-scale energy recovery plants about the absence of any heat offtake, even though all are designed to combine heat and power. In Belvedere’s case, said Pollard, there is a push to develop heat networks.
“Last year we applied for planning permission to build a data centre next door to the plant. We gained outline planning for 30,000sq m, which would make it one of the larger facilities in the UK. We would be able to provide power to it by direct wire. The heat could also be useful by running it through absorption chillers and providing cooling to the data centre.
“That, certainly, would be a good facility to develop on the shoulders of our current assets – building our core business out a little more broadly. There will [also] be increased housing not far from here before too long. Certainly, it would be a delight to be providing heat offtake into the residential community.”
A long lease on land in Wandsworth and a transfer station at Tilbury may offer expansion opportunities, but I wonder how that can help when Belvedere itself is close to capacity. The answer is that Cory could be choosier about which contracts it strikes and who it does business with.
“Having the ability to draw down from other geographies around this neck of the woods – Essex or maybe a different wharf in London – is helpful. It also provides some diversity in the customer mix and the prospect of a different blend of contracts, which may well be more valuable.”
Pollard is in tune with many in the industry in bemoaning the level of waste crime. He understands that the Environment Agency (EA), as with many government bodies, is constrained for resources to tackle this modern blight.
“Waste crime would be right at the top of my agenda for them. I would like to see them acting quickly to remove permits for operators that they go to see, where they can’t gain access, there are threats going on and they need a police escort. Permits like that should be withdrawn immediately.
“It is all too easy to gain permits and licences on a website,” he added, echoing the recent report on waste crime for the ESA by consultancy Eunomia.
I wonder if the industry itself can do more? “Industry can report on activity they observe that’s going wrong. But the issue of regulation, determining ‘this site is legal and proper’ and ‘that site is illegal’ has, ultimately, to belong to the regulator. They’re the arbiter.
“The one thing that industry can do is continue the campaigns that it runs at the moment, so that we get construction companies, manufacturers or whoever, more aware of who they contract with when their waste is collected.”
Our conversation ends as it started, on the business of waste. Pollard, as others in the sector do, bemoans a lack of understanding in Westminster of the need for investment in infrastructure to process residual waste, obviating refuse-derived fuel exports. There is also concern that investor confidence is undermined by regulatory changes affecting an industry that, almost uniquely for infrastructure projects, gets its investment from the private sector.
“Industry needs to step up responsibly but the Government has to step up responsibly too. It’s that partnership that creates the stable platform and the security for investors. I am relatively confident because the Government, through the National Infrastructure Commission and the Treasury, is taking responsibility for coming up with an infrastructure plan for the nation.”
“The more our industry engages with those bodies, there is greater likelihood of Government, regulators and industry working together to create the kind of national efficiency that some other nations seem to be ahead on. The UK is lagging and we need to compete.”
Pollard is proud of the role played by Chris Jones, director of compliance at Cory, in helping to formulate new guidance on waste fires from the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum (WISH).
“WISH has done a tremendous amount of work to really understand what causes spontaneous fires and published an excellent piece of work. It has pulled in the fire services, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and industry practitioners, and really worked this through. It would now be great to see the Environment Agency endorse that report in the way the HSE has. It would be good to have the whole industry, including its regulatory body, united behind it”.