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Ministers in a muddle over ban on sending food waste to landfill

Former environment secretary Lord Deben (Con) faces a tough challenge after being appointed to chair a high-level committee charged with working out how to eradicate food waste from landfill by 2020.

As well as the environmental benefits, a ban on food waste from landfill would give the fledgling anaerobic digestion industry a huge boost by providing the economic certainty required to entice investors. 

The Anaerobic Digestion & Biogas Association has long called for a ban on food waste to landfill, which would secure the feedstock for its growing industry.  

But recent comments by ministers suggest the new committee, which includes members from the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, PDM, Eunomia, Institute of Hospitality, Unilever, and Wrap, faces a stiff challenge. 

No sooner was the ink dry on the government’s waste review last June, which pledged to investigate banning biodegradables from landfill, than ministers appeared to rule it out, leading to a somewhat confusing policy picture (see box below). 

During a House of Commons debate last week, energy minister Charles Hendry (Con), re-asserted his opposition to a centrally imposed outright ban, saying the decision should be taken locally.  

“At the end of the day, however, we want the local authorities to be the driving force in resolving [food waste] issues,” he said.

Handing responsibility to councils may chime well with the localism agenda but Hendry and his colleagues may find the issue cannot be brushed aside quite that easily.

A burgeoning coalition of MPs, local authorities and waste industry figures are calling for a ban and warning England will be left behind by other parts of the UK if swift action is not taken. Scotland, for example, plans to ban food waste from landfill by 2020.

Joy Blizzard, Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee chair and Deben panel member, said: “LARAC has not come to a joint position on this yet but I do worry that England will become the laggards and be left behind once again by the devolved administrations.

“Government needs to provide leadership and put a framework in place and then local authorities can provide the delivery.”

Caroline Nokes, Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, who secured last week’s House of Commons debate on renewable energy, told MRW: “I appreciate the difficulties associated with eliminating food from the waste stream entirely.

“However, that does not mean we should not try, and most local authorities are very conscious of the problems created by food waste.”  

The resulting practical changes which would be required to implement such a ban are not to be underestimated.

The Scottish Government proposals to ban a number of materials from landfill, including source segregated food, glass and plastic among others, outlined plans for a “requirement to sort” to be implemented before corresponding landfill ban.

Scotland’s efforts will be closely watched but if Lord Deben’s desire to eradicate food waste from landfill by 2020 is going to given a fighting chance, it will require similarly bold proposals to be rolled out south of the border as well.

Are ministers united on food waste policy?

Energy minister Charles Hendry said last week local authorities should decide whether or not to landfill food waste rather than government issuing a diktat.

This is not the first time the Department of Energy & Climate Change minister has made such remarks.

While it chimes well with the government’s localism agenda it appears to pour cold water on Defra’s waste review’s pledge to “review the case for restrictions” on landfilling biodegradable waste. But a DECC spokesman insisted the statement was compatible with the Defra review.   

“Putting food waste into landfill is widely condemned but the point the minister was making is that it would be preferable for local authorities to be the driving force in resolving this issue,” he said.  

However, if councils are left to form the policy, what is to stop individual authorities deciding they do want to landfill food waste? Moreover, even local authorities themselves have called leadership from ministers on the issue.

This week, a Defra spokeswoman insisted to MRW: “We don’t want any food waste to go to landfill and we will be reviewing the case for landfill restrictions for biodegradable waste.”

Readers' comments (5)

  • The Scots have it right. It is necessary to start with a requirement to collect food waste separately. But that will cost money - hence the DECC insistence that LAs should decide. The pity is that it seems there is money available but it belongs to Eric Pickles and he seems reluctant to make food waste the centre piece of his programme.

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  • Its time to rethink waste collection, so that how our waste is collected fits with the type of treatment we intend it to go to. Rather than vice-versa.

    What we have at the moment is the waste treatment sector sitting there with some high-tech and expensive plant, but with little or no control over its feedstock, and being required to react to whatever is thrown at it, in effect an "end-of-pipe" service.

    There has to be more "joined-up", but driven by the end-game, not by collection authorities. Food waste is a good example - the collection of food waste has to be done so that its made easy for the householder, who in turn makes it easy for collection. We've made a start with that. But its still too costly, because collection is still in the 20th century. A stand-alone food waste collection service is very expensive per tonne of waste collected, and simply makes AD non-viable, not because of the cost of treatment but the cost of collection. But it doesnt have to be - it merely needs the way in which we collect waste to be made more efficient, say by collecting the small bags of food waste whilst also picking up the residual waste, or the recyclates - on the same round and in the same vehicle. So that it then doesnt cost a lot of money and make things like AD unaffordable purely because of the cost of collection. Its not rocket-science !!

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  • agree with Philip Ward and anonymous - but both don't hit the nail.

    Food waste collection costs are high and as shown by WRAP field research, collection efficiency low even with separate collection, which means considerable amounts will end up in landfill.

    Furthermore landfill offers the lowest cost disposal route including landfill tax, better still if all residual waste is collected weekly and then sorted out in an MRF with the non-recyclable fraction sent to a waste to energy plat.

    However, local authority waste officers are poor in technical/cost optimisation, and the separation of responsibility for collection and treatment between district and county authorities, the real situation is often confused. Many authorities also choose the high cost/low environmental efficiency route for disposing food wastes through in vessel composting which in turn also increases the cost of composting garden waste which has to be added for the process.

    So overall whilst separate collection and AD should provide a cost effective solution, particularly if collection is restricted to built up areas and if catering/food processing wastes are also added, the situation prevailing at present can only be called a pickle.

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  • If the AD industry has failed to establish a reliable feedstock then that is their problem. let the foodstuffs go to landfill. Our council, (in Scotland), refuse to take it in the recycling bin, so it ends up int he normal waste. It is a complete and utter waste of time (if you'll pardon the pun)

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  • Anonymous - AD requires source segregated food waste and it is difficult to get an assured supply unless LAs sign up to long term supply contracts - Source segregated are pretty inefficient (see WRAP reports) with considerable amounts remaining in the residual - the answer is to have AD plants in densely packed locations where collection costs would be low regardless of the poor efficiencies, join up with catering and food industry wastes and get private investors to set up merchant plants.

    The rest - time to get real - if landfill is not optimum - get all waste collected weekly, send to materials recovery facility local to an energy from waste plant.

    At present collection costs are the greater part of waste management and this will help.

    Also many councils having multi-bin systems and kerbside sort need to re-think, and the public need to be educated that their misguided notions about waste to energy, and recycling and NIMBYism is costing all of us huge amounts without in any way lessening the environmental footprint.

    Just an example - apart from the huge collection costs, using in-vessel composting for food and garden wastes costs twice as much as for windrow composting of garden waste.

    To repeat no point source segregated food waste collection if the end disposal is via in-vessel composting - EFW is the most cost and environmentally optimum solution in conjunction with single bin collection, and central sort.

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