In February 2021, RiverRidge celebrated its 10th year of operations. After purchasing Coleraine Skip Hire and Recycling in February 2011, RiverRidge grew the small family run skip hire business into Northern Ireland’s leading waste management company, employing over 280 people.
The company’s success over the last 10 years has been due to its unwavering commitment to innovation, and desire to improve the sustainability of the environment we all live and work in.
In 2011, Northern Ireland lagged the rest of the UK and Ireland in the diversion of local authority waste from landfill. This metric was a fundamental part of the UK’s waste management strategy and a starting point for any sustainable economy’s commitment to protecting the environment. The widely accepted ‘Waste Management Hierarchy’ provides a guide for economies seeking to improve their overall sustainability in terms of waste management. The hierarchy ranks the six broad categories of waste management in order of preference with landfill (disposal) at the bottom and prevention at the top.
It was this policy direction and the need for the UK to meet the then agreed Landfill Directive commitments that led to the introduction of the Landfill Tax Scheme in 1996, where a standard rate of tax that increased each year, was applied to any waste being landfilled. The tax started at £7 a tonne in 1996, increasing to £40 a tonne by 2011. The scheme played a key role in driving down the UK’s landfilled waste from 50 million tonnes in 1996 to under 28 million tonnes by 2011.
While Northern Ireland’s local authorities had responded to the cost increase associated with the new tax, increasing their level of landfill diversion from 9% in 2002 to 33% in 2011, there was limited line of sight on how continued diversion would take place over the coming years. EU enforceable penalties on member states that failed to achieve the targeted landfill diversion rates were part of the Landfill Directive and so financially, Northern Ireland’s local authorities were concerned at the lack of a tangible landfill diversion strategy.
At the time, neither the public sector nor any private operators had invested in any meaningful way into infrastructure, that would ensure residual waste not suitable for recycling could be diverted from landfill. While various large scale public procurements to build three large waste to energy facilities had begun almost four years earlier, none had progressed to any great extent and in time, two eventually collapsed. In 2011, Northern Ireland was therefore woefully underprepared for the future.
RiverRidge’s entry into the sector
This was the backdrop to RiverRidge’s entry into the sector in early 2011. The company seized the initiative and within six months of the acquisition, had completed construction of its first waste recycling facility. The facility, located at its Garvagh site, included some of the most advanced recycling technology available at the time.
Investment into technology
The company invested in near infra-red separation units that scanned waste continuously, using micro jets of air to separate out selected materials such as plastic films. After an initial pilot project proved the potential of the plant’s capability to segregate waste effectively, RiverRidge was awarded a multi-year contract to treat the former Coleraine Borough Council’s residual waste streams. The contract immediately led to a significant increase in the level of waste diverted away from landfill.
The landmark procurement changed the way local authorities approached waste disposal and within five years, RiverRidge was handling over 200,000 tonnes of residual waste a year from six different councils. The impact on Northern Ireland’s diversion figures was immediate and by 2015, the region was well on its way to meeting its 2020 diversion targets.
Core to the diversion of waste from landfill is the use of non-recyclable waste as a fuel to replace traditional fossil fuels. Level two of the waste management hierarchy is energy recovery and so the process of creating Refuse Derived Fuels (RDF) is considered the first stage of improvement from landfill. Waste to energy facilities designed to take RDF have existed across Europe for many years and along with the use of these fuels within the cement manufacturing sector, created a ready market for the RDF, which RiverRidge began manufacturing in 2013.
In the last 10 years, the RDF created in Northern Ireland has increased from around 3,500 tonnes to over 140,000 tonnes a year, with RiverRidge generating the vast majority of this. This development played a key role in ensuring that Northern Ireland’s exposure to European penalties were avoided. In 2018, RiverRidge commissioned a locally based purpose-built waste to energy facility, which further improved the robustness of their offering to local authorities.
However, despite RiverRidge’s capacity to manage over 80% of the residual household waste created by all of Northern Ireland’s local authorities, and the environmental and financial benefits associated with this, there are still several local authorities sending their waste directly to landfill.
The next 10 years and renewables
Most recently, RiverRidge has begun focusing on how much further up the waste hierarchy they can move their solution. The company recently commissioned a washing facility at their Craigmore site – the first stage of a fully integrated mechanical and biological treatment process.
Under the process, RiverRidge will be able to extract all residual organic and food waste previously trapped in the waste stream, processing this material to a point where it is converted into a certified soil improver. This will also allow the company to generate additional levels of renewable energy and in time, even a renewable vehicle fuel that could be used to fuel its own collection fleet.
The £25m project is one of the most ambitious and innovative projects RiverRidge will have tackled in its 10-year history but one which most addresses the need to find a solution to the growing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. By developing a natural soil improver, they will be able to displace manufactured chemically based fertilisers and improve the bio-culture of not only Northern Ireland’s agricultural lands, but potentially even those further afield.
By continuously striving to improve their offering, RiverRidge remains one of the UK’s most influential waste management providers.
Their efforts to date have helped Northern Ireland meet several of its environmental targets and placed the region on a sound footing for the more demanding targets contained within the Circular Economy Package.
RiverRidge starts its next 10 years with a series of exciting projects and hopes that in that time, the environment we live in will be improved in some way because of the developments the company is investing in today.