First Person: Recycling Team Finds Open Doors in England By DAN KNAPP Special to the Planet

Tuesday February 14, 2006

“You’re pushing against an open door!” said a dignitary in the audience. 

All morning on that warm September day last year, about 30 notables described as “statuatory authorities” had listened patiently as nine other Americans and I talked to them about reuse, recycling, and composting on an industrial scale in a purpose-built facility. 

We foreign guests hailed from Washington, DC, Boulder, Colo., San Diego, San Luis Obispo, and Berkeley. Our team included an engineer, an architect, several directors, managers, or administrators of large and stable resource-recovery enterprises. We were experienced people with practical knowledge to share.  

We were in Lowestoft, England—part coastal resort, part fishing port. The collapse of the North Sea fishery a couple of years ago produced widespread unemployment in and around Lowestoft, but agriculture and tourism are still strong. All around Lowestoft to the west is a dairying region known as the Broads, as flat as Holland and crisscrossed by canals that were carved out of the underlying peat. 

Traveling through that countryside one often sees Dutch-style windmills in the distance, and sailboats moving slowly through the fields, hulldown behind the pasture grasses and hedgerows. There is fresh water underfoot, running water nearby, water to drink, to supply the farmers and the tourists; it’s a watery place. 

Landfills that leak produce vast plumes of leachate that spread and contaminate fresh water. Hydrologically, it’s a safe bet there are no good sites for any new landfills in the Broads.  

The statutory authorities we are talking to know that, and they’re worried. The day before, our sponsor Maxine Narburgh had given us this project overview:  

• The American team is asked to design a resource recovery park for Lowestoft that can get to zero waste—no landfilling. It will be called the Zero Waste Centre.  

• Time is short; only 12 years’ worth of permitted landfill space remains in the Waveney region.  

• A 15-acre site suitable for the zero waste park is “in the planning envelope.”  

• European Union funding is available for business incubator functions and development.  

• Funds are available to build facilities that produce heat for housing and fuel for vehicles.  

• Bottom line: The whole operation should power itself from activities and resources the site will produce, including harvesting energy from the wind and the sun.  

• What are now social services will turn into social enterprises, a new business form combining entrepreneurial zeal with social consciousness.  

After our morning presentations and lunch, we reconvened for discussion and feedback. Outside the windows at the Hotel Victoria, the North Sea lapped gently against Lowestoft’s white beach under the warm autumn sun, with France and the Netherlands just over the horizon. 

Inside, we forgot the scenery and focused on what we knew about costs, the prospects for acquiring sufficient land zoned correctly, where the money would come from, what agencies it would flow through. People got up and walked around, formed little groups, worked on the problems. 

At day’s end our team leader, Rick Anthony from San Diego, asked for a show of hands of those who thought the project was a bad idea. No hands went up. Then he asked who thought it was a good idea. Almost all hands went up.  

Weeks later the Berkeley contingent began working up the zero waste site plan. We started with large concepts, some drawn from site designs we’ve done or worked on in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. 

Principle: design a resource processing facility that mirrors policy priorities and maximizes customer convenience. Put reuse functions ahead of recycling so reusables arrive in better shape. Separate incoming customer traffic from outgoing product transport. Protect processing areas. Specify that operations will buy some materials, let some be dropped off free, charge disposal fees for others. Put wasting last in line, and make it the most expensive disposal option. Recognize and provide for all load types. Make unloading convenient, efficient, and safe. Provide space for lots of specialist niche operations handling different parts of the supply.  

England is more socialist than our country and is a nation of small enterprises. Government wants more and has a well-developed set of organizations to help businesses start up. So smack in the middle of the vast resource recovery park roundabout we created a set of buildings we called The Centre. 

This will house the authority set up to manage the Zero Waste Centre (it will be at the centre of the Centre), recruit its tenant businesses, and collect rents and fees to support itself. There are also offices for other supporting agencies and businesses, a restaurant area, meeting rooms, and classrooms.  

The intent of the entire complex is to replace all landfilling in the Waveney area by treating all discards as resources that can be sold into commerce.  

Using e-mails and occasional faxes, we got the designs reviewed by first our team, and then by the responsible folks in England. By mid-December, we deemed it done.  

This work in Lowestoft is paralleled by Berkeley’s own effort to renovate and expand its resource recovery facilities at Berkeley’s regional discard management center, currently known as the Berkeley transfer station. Berkeley’s council recently passed a zero waste goal, and a planning process designed to achieve 75 percent or better waste reduction has been proceeding for more than a year. This is a large capital improvement project, currently estimated to cost about $30 million, much bigger than anything done before.  


Two charming representatives of project Bright Green East of England will be staying in Berkeley from Wednesday night to Sunday afternoon. They will tour the Berkeley reuse, recycling, and solid waste facilities, including Urban Ore, as well as other facilities around the Bay Area, and will focus especially on Berkeley. Please contact me if you would like more details about this week’s visit by Maxine Narburgh of Suffolk Connect. A reception will be held at Urban Ore, at 900 Murray St., Thursday 1-4 p.m. 


Dan Knapp is the general manager of Urban Ore