SOMETIMES it feels we are faced with a straight choice between filth and fines.

If we fail to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill, Oxfordshire - and ultimately the council taxpayer - will find itself facing fines running into millions.

But forcing residents to mend their ways by collecting rubbish only fortnightly has caused some to fear that streets will be strewn with overflowing bags and bins and tthat vermin will increase.

There does, however, appear to be another path.

And in order to find it, I recently headed down the M40 to a residential area of north London in the hope of finding "the logical solution" to Oxfordshire's waste problems.

I was accompanied by former military man Harry Waters, hardly the head of a recycling revolution, but a man with a well-advanced waste strategy to combat Oxfordshire's waste problems.

Harry is a sales director with Agrivert, a medium-sized company based in the west Oxfordshire village of Radford, near Chipping Norton. The firm began its life 12 years ago as an agricultural contractor specialising in turning sewage sludge into fertiliser.

Since then it has moved into the kitchen - at least in the sense that it now specialises in recycling hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food, kitchen and green waste into compost.

Recycling food is already being seen by Oxfordshire County Council and all five district councils as a crucial means to cope with our mounting waste.

The idea of weekly household food collections is now seen as key to a new county-wide approach to reducing the amount of waste going into the ground. It is not difficult to see why.

By source-separating municipal waste into garden waste, kitchen waste and cardboard, up to 64 per cent of waste could be diverted from landfill.

And it can all be achieved by a system called in-vessel composting.

Agrivert will be one of the companies bidding to create a modern food and green waste recycling centre in Oxfordshire, enabling vast amounts of food to be safely turned into compost.

County Hall will tender to find the best company to deliver the best technology.

But such is the local firm's confidence of ultimately winning the contract that it has already spent tens of thousands designing a plant for Oxfordshire and finding a suitable location.

It plans to start consultation with local authorities this week and it is intending soon to submit an outline planning application to Oxfordshire County Council.

The Chipping Norton company will make much of the fact that it was selected to design, build and operate an in-vessel plant at Edmonton, where 30,000 tonnes of kitchen and green waste is recycled a year.

The north London plant, which cost £5.5m to build, has already been visited by councillors and officers from County Hall.

The Oxford Times was equally anxious to see whether this really is the low-cost, environmentally-sound solution that Oxfordshire so badly needs.

The site strikes you as remarkable even before the huge eco park comes into view. You would not imagine that a densely-populated city residential area would be the best place to drop off tens of thousands of tonnes of rotting food, leaving it to rot some more. Yet no fewer than 30,000 people live within a mile of the centre.

In rural Oxfordshire, there was certainly no need to consider building a centre in the middle of Kidlington, Bicester or any other housing area.

But the fact that a plant has been created in north London, surrounded by homes, will go some way to counter fears about the threat of smell and dangers from bioaerosol emissions.

To borrow from the song - if Agrivert can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

The other shock is to find that Agrivert shares the park with a large incinerator, where huge amounts of waste are burned.

Incineration is the far more controversial alternative to burying waste, still to be officially ruled out or in as a County Hall option.

In Edmonton at least, the two options of burning and recycling have somehow come to exist side by side.

With Oxfordshire now in a race against time to meet the demands of the EU Landfill Directive, and avoid fines of between £3 and £12.8m, it is surprising to learn that the Agrivert plant is based on technology developed in Germany 12 years ago.

There are also food composting plants, of various shapes and sizes, already in use in Somerset, Cambridgeshire, Devon and Dorset.

In-vessel composting essentially involves putting food in vast, closed containers, known as vessels, and pumping air into them.

At Edmonton, they are not so much containers as vast tunnels, with the composting process accelerated by forced air ventilation via ducts in the floor. The design is nothing if not simple.

There are no moving parts within the tunnel. The roof opens for loading and unloading by loading shovel, while Goretex material acts as a very simple barrier to odour and bioaerosols, the airborne particles produced in high levels in the food composting.

Some research has linked bioaerosols with lung, respiratory and gastro-intestinal illnesses, with the level of health threat posed by bioaerosols still the subject of scientific debate.

Mr Waters, noticing my surprise at the mountains of Christmas trees on the site, explained: "You cannot compost pure kitchen waste. You need at least 40 per cent of green waste with it."

He also pointed out that employing what is essentially a natural composting process, biodegradable waste can be reduced in weight by up to 60 per cent and converted into a soil conditioner rich in nutrients and humus.

The system allows councils the choice of whether food and green waste are collected from households in separate bins or together.

Waste is delivered by vans at a reception area via a ramp system, to avoid the collection vehicles being 'contaminated'.

Visitors are required to step into disinfection tubs, bringing back for me memories of farm visits during the foot-and-mouth crisis.

And it turns out that the foot-and-mouth outbreak is responsible for the palpably-tight regulations and health controls in the treatment of all food waste.

What enters the reception building is blended using loading shovels and then shredded before being carried to Tunnel One. There it will be aerated for up to three weeks, heated at 60C for 48 continuous hours.

The 'sanitised compost' is transferred to second-stage tunnels, where the programme is repeated before being sifted to the 'maturation pad' where it is frequently turned over a five- to eight-week period.

Finally, the matured compost is screened, with plastic, stones and metal removed, with the finished compost recycled largely for agricultural use.

The smell is strong, though not overpowering. It is hardly repugnant, but far from pleasant.

Given the huge quantities of food waste arriving every day, the site is remarkably clean, with a marked absence of people.

It comes almost as a shock to find the whole operation requires just four members of staff.

Mr Waters assures me that plants can be designed to process almost any volume of waste. Kerbside-collected green waste, kitchen waste and cardboard can all be successfully processed.

It is understood that Oxfordshire would seek to recycle about 37,000 tonnes of organic waste a year, with County Hall wanting a centre operating by 2008-9.

One option would be for a waste company to build a centre, with the county then paying a gate fee for every tonne of waste delivered.

About 28 per cent of household waste is thought to involve food. Yet such a centre may still not be enough to satisfy the demands of European policy-makers.

Home-owners across Oxfordshire will also have mixed feelings that such a centre is still some time away.

As Eric Murray, of CROW, the group campaigning for the return of weekly waste collections in Oxford, observed: "The sensible thing would have been to wait until everything was in place to recycle food before ending weekly collections."

But there is definitely light at the end of the in-vessel composting tunnel.