When Biogen was set up 10 years ago, what was its vision and how did it see the business developing?
John Ibbett (JI):
We established Biogen in 2005 with investment from original founders Bedfordia Group. Our aim was to create a virtuous circle – from farm to food waste and back again and, within six months, we had a vision for a national company.
Our first anaerobic digestion (AD) plant in Bedfordshire was completed in 2006, recycling food waste along with animal slurry from Bedfordia’s farming business. Although it was early days and we weren’t 100% sure what ‘success’ was going to look like, we knew that Biogen had the potential to be a national business on a large scale.
At that time we thought the business would have to fund the first three plants itself and then would have to look for outside investment, so it has more or less gone to plan.
What have been the highlights and lowlights in the journey so far?
JI: The completion of Twinwoods, our first AD plant in 2006, the commissioning of our second plant in Northamptonshire in 2009 plus winning the tenders to build our three Welsh plants were all major boosts to the business.
Another key milestone was being able to secure significant investment to help us grow our network of plants. The £24.4m of investment from Kier in 2012 and investment from Iona Capital, which helped to fund the construction of two of our plants, has been key to our success and, of course, says something about the confidence others have in our business and in our ability to deliver.
There is also the immense sense of accomplishment each time we complete and deliver an AD plant, safely, on time and to budget. As all AD operators will testify, it is no small feat to meet all three criteria.
Underpinning all our successes are the people who work in the Biogen business – the teams are incredibly hard working but, more importantly, are passionate about what we are is trying to achieve and the contribution we are making to protect our planet.
There have obviously been challenges along the way that have tested us. Much of this is down to the fact that, 10 years ago, when Biogen started out, the industry was very new. There were only a handful of AD operators doing this on a commercial scale so, to an extent, we were helping to write the rule book, particularly around maintaining operational and biological stability at the plants.
They say experience is the best teacher and it has been a steep learning curve for us, where we have often had to react quickly to issues without always having an obvious reference point to go to. While these situations have presented real challenges to the broader team, our resilience and robustness as an organisation is built on the shared experiences and resolutions that arise from these scenarios.
What does Biogen see as the key developments in the food waste sector during the past 10 years?
Julian O’Neill (JON):
There has been a transformation in the food waste AD sector. A decade ago, the early adopters were predominantly operator-based businesses that looked at AD as a bolt-on to existing facilities. As more AD plants were built, and the UK’s food waste problem became more broadly understood, the number of sites began to grow, largely on the back of renewable energy incentive mechanisms.
Roll forward a few years and we begin to see an increased interest in the sector from developers and potential investors, which prompted food waste recycling to take off.
We have seen far more focus on food waste itself, with millions of tonnes of organics that were previously being buried in landfills now being processed in AD plants. There is still much more to do in this respect, but progress is being made and waste is beginning to be managed in the right way – both economically and environmentally.
How have these affected the business?
JON: On a positive level, the growth in the AD food waste industry has demonstrated what can be done with the right elements in place – policy, funding, technology and operations – to develop a sector that can hold its own among other renewables. The push to drive food waste out of the residual stream has helped the growth of the sector significantly, although the real potential has yet to be realised for AD in the UK market.
But one of the risks associated with a rapidly growing market is that we continue to see a level of over-stimulation of the sector, with plants being rushed through a pipeline process to avoid degression. Some clearly have not been fully thought through.
There is a risk that the difficulties associated with running an industrial-scale food waste plant are underestimated. They really are not for novices, and require careful management to maintain a safe, optimised, efficient process.
As we have seen a number of these entrants join the market, we have also seen the inevitable pressure on gate fees, where competition for waste streams intensifies. Although it is a regional issue, we need to watch the sustainability of the industry because some plants will certainly be put under pressure to make the economics stack up.
What does the food waste sector need to take it forward in the next 10 years?
JON: The key issue that needs to be addressed is the removal of food waste and other organics from landfill. There is a compelling logic in making this happen, both in terms of protecting our environment and creating a sustainable future for the food waste AD industry.
The Government has done a good job in creating an incentive regime to promote the generation of renewable energy, but we need to see that matched by a commitment to drive food waste into the right technologies.
Some regions of the UK have led from the front on this and are now witnessing an excellent level of performance in waste segregation, but we need to see a much stronger steer through legislation to encourage or mandate further participation.
What will the UK food waste recycling sector – and Biogen – look like a decade from now?
JON: The next decade for the food waste AD industry is largely dependent on a ban on organics to landfill. An increase in participation will support further expansion of the industry and the continued growth of renewable energy and biofertiliser, which has to be the right thing for the economy and the environment.
Some sectors of the food waste market will probably change, with retailers looking to better utilise out-of-date items within the community and consumers becoming more aware of the benefits of segregating their waste at home.
As for the AD industry, those organisations with resilient, compliant operations and a network of larger scale plants, coupled with a focus on customer service, will be best placed to succeed. We will most likely see some form of consolidation along with expansion of existing facilities and a modest level of growth in new sites.
The criticality of clear, equitable incentive mechanisms, legislative support to drive food waste out of landfill and an increasingly informed investor base will be key components to ensure the further development of the industry into the 2020s.
Flagship AD plant
Biogen’s Bygrave Lodge
Bygrave Lodge, a few miles from Baldock in Hertfordshire, was completed in 2014. A finalist in the 2015 National Recycling Awards for the Best Energy-From-Waste Initiative, the plant processes 45,000 tonnes of packaged and unpackaged food waste each year from households, major supermarkets, food processors and the hospitality industry.
Its three key outputs are:
2.5MW of renewable electricity, of which 2.1MW goes into the national grid and the remainder used to run the plant
Heat, which is used to serve the AD process, the pasteurisation, domestic hot water for staff and heat communal areas
A valuable sustainable biofertiliser which is used on nearby farmland and in so doing closes the loop – what starts on the farm ends on the farm.
Constructing such a plant in a greenbelt area presented some challenges, not least limiting the impact on the local environment.
During the planning and construction phases of the plant, Biogen’s priority was to protect the environment and enhance the natural landscape wherever possible. As a result, Bygrave Lodge became the first ever AD plant in the UK to receive a CEEQUAL award for civil engineering, infrastructure, landscaping and the public realm.