Traveling with the tide

Journalist Mike Scott interviews managing director of Dorset-based Eco Sustainable Solutions, Trelawney Dampney and the company’s COO Justin Dampney, as they talk about ‘traveling with the tide’, focusing on renewables and plans for a new energy recovery facility (ERF) in Bournemouth.

“You want to make sure you are travelling with the tide, not fighting it,” says Trelawney Dampney, managing director of Dorset-based Eco Sustainable Solutions, when asked what inspired him to start his composting business a quarter of a century ago.

“After completing an MBA, I realised the importance of having a business that was prepared for the future. A friend who was a tree surgeon came back from a trip to Germany and told me about how they collected and shredded green waste and turned it into compost. I did a bit of research and thought it could be a good idea to do that here.”

Here being Parley in Dorset, where his family have farmed for 70 years. “We had the land for it and the skills for it. But nothing like that was happening here in the UK. Everything went to landfill.”

However, the business landscape was starting to change. The Environmental Protection Act of 1990 had established new responsibilities for dealing with waste and the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 paved the way for the sustainability movement – encouraging us all to ‘think global, act local’ which became the company’s mantra. Just a year after Eco was born, the UK’s landfill tax was introduced, creating a steady supply of green waste for the company to turn into compost.

I realised the importance of having a business that was prepared for the future

One of Eco’s initial backers was a local garden centre, which sold the compost the firm produced. “It taught us the importance of selling end products,” he says. “We charged a gate fee of £7, just below the landfill gate fee at the time.” And so, creating a great product was key to creating a margin.

While gaining planning permission was not too problematic because the initial business was on such a small scale (it now treats 250,000 tonnes of waste a year), “it was difficult being in a business that no-one else was doing and having to learn as we went along,” says Trelawny. “When we started it was all very ‘Heath Robinson’. There was mud everywhere because we didn’t need to – and certainly couldn’t afford to – put concrete down.”

As the business expanded, it moved into soil recycling, and in 2003, it won the contract to process Dorset County Council’s wood waste and started in-vessel composting to comply with animal by-products regulations following the start of commingled food and garden waste collections by local authorities.

Three years later, Eco was awarded PAS:100 Accreditation for compost soil improver, demonstrating the quality of the product.

Renewable energy focus

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Since the turn of the millennium, the company has also added a focus on renewable energy to its waste processing capabilities. With government support growing for the use of anaerobic digestion alongside challenges presented by in-vessel composting, Eco developed a site at Piddlehinton near Dorchester, which opened in 2012. The site processes around 35,000 tonnes of food waste a year, including waste that used to be processed at Parley, producing 1.6MW of electricity.

The fully enclosed, negative-pressure food waste reception hall at Parley now operates as a food waste transfer station for local kerbside collected food waste, reducing waste miles. At Eco, nothing goes to waste – and as the company reaches the quarter-century mark, Eco is also marking the milestone of having prevented 1.5 million tonnes of carbon being emitted.

Four years later, the company opened the final phase of a 77MW solar farm, the biggest in the UK at the time, which provides enough power for 20,000 homes. A couple of years after that, the firm opened a biomass combined heat and power (CHP) plant, powered by some of the wood waste it processes.

We’ve always been very focused on scanning the horizon and looking for the next big issue that we can help to address.

This means Eco is a carbon-positive operation. The electricity produced by the plant powers the site during the day and is exported to the grid at night, while the heat is used to dry typically low value and tricky to deal with compost oversize, which is processed into fuel for a larger CHP site in South Wales.

“We never move too far away from our core skills,” says Trelawney, 62, who helped to found, and for a number of years chaired, the Composting Association, which is now REA: Organics. “But we’ve always been very focused on scanning the horizon and looking for the next big issue that we can help to address.

“We have very strong roots in caring for the environment and the solar park and the Biomass CHP plant are ways we can not only decarbonise our own operations but also the local power supply as well,” says Trelawney’s 35-year-old son, Justin, who is now the company’s Chief Operating Officer, having started out litter-picking during school holidays at the age of 11!

“We see our role now as helping other organisations to manage their waste and become carbon-neutral,” Justin says. “As Dad says, we keep our eyes open so we can spot the next opportunity and position ourselves to continue addressing environmental challenges for the next 25 years.”

Energy recovery

With the background of the UK as a whole and the local BCP (Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole) Council declaring a climate emergency, plus the government introducing the world’s first net zero carbon law, planning is already under way for the company’s next project – an energy recovery facility (ERF) for local residual waste.

The new scheme ticks a lot of boxes, Justin says. “There is still a huge amount of waste going to landfill, and that is having to be transported out of the county because all of Dorset’s landfills have shut. That increases emissions and ‘waste miles’ and goes against the ‘Proximity Principle’ that local communities should manage their own waste not only to reduce the burden on neighbouring authorities but also to create local economic growth and employment.”

Eco’s proposed ERF will process 60,000 tonnes of residual waste – a small proportion will be extracted for recycling, with the rest used to produce more low-carbon energy.

The proposed site for the ERF, at the company’s Eco Park near Bournemouth Airport, is already identified in the local authority waste plan and already has planning permission for a biofuel facility. “We’re proposing a small increase in the size of the biofuel facility, a change to the fuel it will use and an increase in the amount of clean energy it will produce,” Justin says.

“The 60,000 tonnes is less than half of the tonnage capacity suggested in the site’s allocation in the local councils’ waste Plan, and around a quarter of the residual waste that the waste Plan has identified a need for new facilities to treat. We did consider options for building a bigger plant, but this size fits the local community and the Waste Plan, it has a lower impact and it takes into account the fact that in future, people will hopefully produce far less waste.”

[…] This size fits the local community and the Waste Plan, it has a lower impact and it takes into account the fact that in future, people will hopefully produce far less waste

While the electricity can be fed into the Grid, Eco is looking for local outlets for the heat. “A 250-home development is planned nearby and we have been in discussion with the developers about using heat, and we have had outline talks with the airport, next door, about providing heat for some of their tenants as part of their redevelopment plans. The area around Bournemouth Airport is earmarked as a huge economic growth area.”

The ERF is all part of the horizon-scanning that Trelawney mentions. Yet he is cautious about outlining a vision for the company’s second 25 years. “I don’t think anyone really knows what the site will look like in 25 years. I don’t think we should have a specific long-term vision because you never know what will happen – who could have predicted the impact of this pandemic, for example?” he says.

Nonetheless, some of the challenges of the future are already clear, Justin says. “We’ve made a great start on helping to decarbonise power, but there’s a long way to go on transport and heat. Soil health is also going to be a huge challenge – getting good organic carbon into the ground will be really important, both to restore soils and to sequester carbon.”

As the baton passes from one generation to the next, Trelawney is proud of Eco’s role in developing the composting industry and branching out into clean energy – developments that led it to be named Pioneer of the Year by the Renewable Energy Association in 2018, a decade after being named Company of the Year by the Dorset Business Awards. “We’ve built a really solid, sustainable business in a sector that still has tremendous growth to come. We hope to play a central role in that.”

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